Comment on Gender Differences in Scientific Achievement-BECKER
It is surely legitimate to raise the issue of biological differences in explaining the lower number of female than male scientists. But the issues are more complicated and to some extent different than the ones that are frequently stressed.
The basic question in this regard is: how much of the difference in numbers and achievements of male and female scientists is explained by biological factors compared to other factors? We would have been greatly mistaken if we concluded 40 years ago that the very small representation of women in law, medicine, business, engineering, and many other professions was mainly due to any limited aptitudes for these fields. For since then, the fraction of female students in medical, law, engineering, and business schools rose rapidly, and women are more represented than men in some very good graduate programs in these fields. Their biology did not change, but birth rates declined, and women’s education and labor force participation increased rapidly. These forces, combined with an assault on discriminatory barriers to entry in these fields, were clearly the major ones involved in the very rapid growth of women’s participation in these professions.
So what priority should be given to biological aptitude rather than time spent in child rearing, discrimination, social conditioning, and other non-biological factors in explaining the continuing under-representation of women among scientists, and even more among top scientists? No one knows for sure- which is why academic pressure against discussing possible biological difference in talents is disturbing. However, my own belief is that we can get a lot of explanatory power out of factors that do not rely on intrinsic gender difference in talents, including high-level talents.
The reasons behind this conclusion are simple. To be a top level scientist-indeed, to be tops in any challenging field- requires long hours of work and an intense commitment to discovery and the like. Yet as long as women continue to have the major responsibilities for child-rearing and other household activities, they will have to combine professional activities with a mother’s and other household duties. Inevitably, that will force most women to reduce their professional commitment.
These women will adjust either by lowering their scientific ambitions, or by electing not to enter these fields in the first place. Others will forego motherhood and even marriage to pursue their scientific careers, and some of these and a smaller fraction of the other women will become highly successful. But even without discrimination against women, the attempt to combine several quite different activities will continue to lower the fraction of top women scientists (or top CEO’s, lawyers, etc) compared to men.
The variance in the distributions of the required talents may well be greater among men than women-as suggested by Larry Summers and others- so that there are many more brilliant and very dumb men than women. Even so, one does not want to overestimate the importance of brilliance in explaining the so-far low representation of women among outstanding achievers, as measured by Nobel and other major prizes. For a large fraction of male high achievers are not brilliant-they are not an Einstein, Newton, Euler, or LaPlace, to name a few of the recognized geniuses in scientific accomplishment.
An outstanding Columbia University physicist, the late I. Rabi, years ago was supposedly asked at a gathering of Nobelists and other high achievers about how most of those present had achieved so much since they did not seem particularly brilliant. His brief answer: “hard work”. That is also my belief after being at many similar gatherings.
Women are likely to be at a much greater disadvantage in this regard, due to their child-rearing and other responsibilities, than in biological aptitude. While studies indicate that the total hours worked by women, including household “work”, are generally as high or even higher than the total hours worked by men, women’s work is less specialized toward professional and other business achievement. Moreover, they anticipate this lesser degree of specialization in determining their professional ambitions and time use at early ages.
For other reasons as well, it is difficult to infer biological differences from occupational choices. For example, biological factors could entirely explain occupational choices, and yet the lower representation of women among scientists would not imply that they have less scientific aptitude. The reason is that women could be better than men at all occupations, but would be underrepresented in science if any difference between men and women in scientific aptitudes were smaller than in non-scientific aptitudes.
In my book, A Treatise on the Family, I expressed a belief that the traditional gender division of labor between working in the marketplace and working in the household- that is, taking care of children, etc- is partly due to biological differences between men and women. However, I also stressed that this gender division of labor is consistent with women being superior to men at market activities too. Rather, it implies that differences in market “abilities” are less than at child rearing and the like. In economic jargon, observed data on occupational choices only reflects comparative advantage, not absolute advantage.
My conclusion is that the sharp differences in scientific and similar accomplishments between men and women may be partly due to differences in high-level aptitudes, but that such differences are less important than other forces. To be sure, scholarly studies of any biological differences between men and women should be welcomed. Still, I believe that studies of other influences on male-female differences in scientific and related achievements are likely to be highly productive.