Where My Girls At? (In The Sciences)

Intro

In the current educational landscape, there is a constant stream of calls to improve female representation in the sciences. However, the call to action is often framed within the aforementioned nebulous realm of “the sciences”—an umbrella term that ignores the distinct environments across the scientific disciplines. To better understand the true state of women in “the sciences,” we must investigate representation at the discipline level in the context of both undergraduate and doctoral education. As it turns out, National Science Foundation (NSF) open data provides the ability to do just that!

The NSF’s Report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering includes raw numbers on both undergraduate and doctoral degrees earned by women and men across all science disciplines. With these figures in hand, it’s simple to generate measures of female representation within each field of study—that is, percentages of female degree earners. This NSF report spans the decade 2002–­2012 and provides an immense amount of raw material to investigate.[1]

The static picture: 2012

First, we will zero in on the most recent year of data, 2012, and explicitly compare female representation within and across disciplines.[2]

fig1

The NSF groups science disciplines with similar focus (for example, atmospheric and ocean sciences both focus on environmental science) into classified parent categories. In order to observe not only the variation within each parent category but also across the more granular disciplines themselves, the above graph plots percentage female representation by discipline, with each discipline colored with respect to its NSF classified parent category.

The variation within each parent category can be quite pronounced. In the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, female undergraduate representation ranges from 36% (atmospheric sciences) to 47% (ocean sciences) of total graduates. Among PhD graduates, female representation ranges from 39% (atmospheric sciences) to 48% (ocean sciences). Meanwhile, female representation in the physical sciences has an undergraduate range from 19% (physics) to 47% (chemistry) and a PhD range from 20% (physics) to 39% (chemistry). However, social sciences has the largest spread of all with undergraduate female representation ranging from 30% (economics) to 71% (anthropology) and PhD representation ranging from 33% (economics) to 64% (anthropology).

In line with conventional wisdom, computer sciences and physics are overwhelmingly male (undergraduate and PhD female representation lingers around 20% for both). Other disciplines in which female representation notably lags include: economics, mathematics and statistics, astronomy, and atmospheric sciences. Possible explanations behind the low representation in such disciplines have been debated at length.

Interactions between “innate abilities,” mathematical content, and female representation

Relatively recently, in January 2015, an article in Science “hypothesize[d] that, across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.” While this explanation was compelling to many, another group of researchers quickly responded by showing that once measures of mathematical content were added into the proposed models, the measures of innate beliefs (based on surveys of faculty members) shed all their statistical significance. Thus, the latter researchers provided evidence that female representation across disciplines is instead associated with the discipline’s mathematical content “and that faculty beliefs about innate ability were irrelevant.”

However, this conclusion does not imply that stereotypical beliefs are unimportant to female representation in scientific disciplines—in fact, the same researchers argue that beliefs of teachers and parents of younger children can play a large role in silently herding women out of math-heavy fields by “becom[ing] part of the self-fulfilling belief systems of the children themselves from a very early age.” Thus, the conclusion only objects to the alleged discovery of a robust causal relationship between one type of belief, university/college faculty beliefs about innate ability, and female representation.

Despite differences, both assessments demonstrate a correlation between measures of innate capabilities and female representation that is most likely driven by (1) women being less likely than men to study math-intensive disciplines and (2) those in math-intensive fields being more likely to describe their capacities as innate.[3]

The second point should hardly be surprising to anyone who has been exposed to mathematical genius tropes—think of all those handsome janitors who write up proofs on chalkboards whose talents are rarely learned. The second point is also incredibly consistent with the assumptions that underlie “the cult of genius” described by Professor Jordan Ellenberg in How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (p.412):

The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! I’ve never heard a student say, “I like Hamlet, but I don’t really belong in AP English—that kid who sits in the front row knows all the plays, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine!”

In short, subjects that are highly mathematical are seen as more driven by innate abilities than are others. In fact, describing someone as a hard worker in mathematical fields is often seen as an implicit insult—an implication I very much understand as someone who has been regularly (usually affectionately) teased as a “try-hard” by many male peers.

The dynamic picture: 2002–2012

Math-intensive subjects are predominately male in the static picture for the year 2012, but how has the gender balance changed over recent years (in these and all science disciplines)? To answer this question, we turn to a dynamic view of female representation over a recent decade by looking at NSF data for the entirety of 2002–2012.

fig2

The above graph plots the percentages of female degree earners in each science discipline for both the undergraduate and doctoral levels for each year from 2002 to 2012. The trends are remarkably varied with overall changes in undergraduate female representation ranging from a decrease of 33.9% (computer sciences) to an increase of 24.4% (atmospheric sciences). Overall changes in doctoral representation ranged from a decline of 8.8% (linguistics) to a rise of 67.6% (astronomy). The following visual more concisely summarizes the overall percentage changes for the decade.

fig3

As this graph illustrates, there were many gains in female representation at the doctoral level between 2002 and 2012. All but three disciplines experienced increased female representation—seems promising, yes? However, substantial losses at the undergraduate level should yield some concern. Only six of the eighteen science disciplines experienced undergraduate gains in female representation over the decade.

The illustrated increases in representation at the doctoral level are likely extensions of gains at the undergraduate level from the previous years—gains that are now being eroded given the presented undergraduate trends. The depicted losses at the undergraduate level could very well lead to similar losses at the doctoral level in the coming decade, which would hamper the widely shared goal to tenure more female professors.

The change for computer sciences is especially important since it provides a basis for the vast, well-documented media and academic focus on women in the field. (Planet Money brought the decline in percentage of female computer science majors to the attention of many in 2014.) The discipline experienced a loss in female representation at the undergraduate level that was more than twice the size of that in any other subject, including physics (-15.6%), earth sciences (-12.2%), and economics (-11.9%).

While the previous discussion of innate talent and stereotype threat focused on math-intensive fields, a category computer sciences fall into, I would argue that this recent decade has seen the effect of those forces on a growing realm of code-intensive fields. The use of computer programming and statistical software has become a standard qualification for many topics in physics, statistics, economics, biology, astronomy, and other fields. In fact, completing degrees in these disciplines now virtually requires coding in some way, shape, or form.

For instance, in my experience, one nontrivial hurdle that stands between students and more advanced classes in statistics or economics is the time necessary to understand how to use software such as R and Stata. Even seemingly simple tasks in these two programs requires some basic level of comfort with structuring commands—an understanding that is not taught in these classes, but rather mentioned as a quick and seemingly obvious sidebar. Despite my extensive coursework in economics and mathematics, I am quick to admit that I only became comfortable with Stata via independent learning in a summer research context, and R via pursuing projects for this blog many months after college graduation.

The implications of coding’s expanding role in many strains of scientific research should not be underestimated. If women are not coding, they are not just missing from computer science—they will increasingly be missing from other disciplines which coding has seeped into.

The big picture: present–future

In other words, I would argue academia is currently faced with the issue of improving female representation in code-intensive fields.[4] As is true with math-intensive fields, the stereotypical beliefs of teachers and parents of younger children “become part of the self-fulfilling belief systems of the children themselves from a very early age” that discourage women from even attempting to enter code-intensive fields. These beliefs when combined with Ellenberg’s described “cult of genius” (a mechanism that surrounded mathematics and now also applies to the atmosphere in computer science) are especially dangerous.

Given the small percentage of women in these fields at the undergraduate level, there is limited potential growth in female representation along the academic pipeline—that is, at the doctoral and professorial levels. While coding has opened up new, incredible directions for research in many of the sciences, its evolving importance also can yield gender imbalances due to the same dynamics that underlie underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.

Footnotes

[1] Unfortunately, we cannot extend this year range back before 2002 since earlier numbers were solely presented for broader discipline categories, or parent science categories—economics and anthropology would be grouped under the broader term “social sciences,” while astronomy and chemistry would be included under the term “physical sciences.”

[2] The NSF differentiates between science and engineering as the latter is often described as an application of the former in academia. While engineering displays an enormous gender imbalance in favor of men, I limit my discussion here to disciplines that fall under the NSF’s science category.

[3] The latter viewpoint does have some scientific backing. The paper “Nonlinear Psychometric Thresholds for Physics and Mathematics” supports the notion that while greater work ethic can compensate for lesser ability in many subjects, those below some threshold of mathematical capacities are very unlikely to succeed in mathematics and physics coursework.

[4] On a positive note, atmospheric sciences, which often involves complex climate modeling techniques, has experienced large gains in female representation at the undergraduate level.

Speaking of coding…

Check out my relevant Github repository for all data and R scripts necessary for reproducing these visuals.

Thank you to:

Ally Seidel for all the edits over the past few months! & members of NYC squad for listening to my ideas and debating terminology with me.


© Alexandra Albright and The Little Dataset That Could, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, accompanying visuals, and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alex Albright and The Little Dataset That Could with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This Post is Brought to You by the National Science Foundation

Intro

I have officially finished applying for my PhD. While the application process included many of the same elements that I had previously encountered as a fresh-faced* 17-year-old (think standardized testing without the #2 pencils and lots more button clicking), I am no longer applying as a (relatively) blank slate–a future liberal arts student who will float and skip between disciplines until being neatly slotted into a major. Instead, we PhD applicants have already zeroed in on a particular area of study–in my case, economics. Consequently, each PhD discipline is unlikely to exhibit the same carefully crafted demographics boasted in the pie charts that plaster undergraduate brochures across the country to provide tangible evidence for optimistic, bolded statements about diversity. In formulating responses to a slew of university-specific prompts about diversity in “the sciences,” I grew curiouser and curiouser about two particular questions: What do demographic compositions look like across various PhD disciplines in the sciences? & Have demographic snapshots changed meaningfully over time?

As I continued working to imbue a sense of [academic] self into pdfs composed of tightly structured Times New Roman 12 point font, I repeatedly found myself at the NSF open data portal, seeking to answer these aforementioned questions. However, I would then remind myself that, despite my organic urge to load rows and columns into R Studio, I should be the responsible adult (who I know I can be) and finish my applications before running out to recess. Now that the last of the fateful buttons have been clicked (and a sizable portion of my disposable income has been devoured by application fees and the testing industrial complex), I’m outside and ready to talk science!**

NSF data and sizes of “the sciences”

In this post, I am focusing on the demographics of science PhD degrees awarded as they pertain to citizenship and race/ethnicity, but not gender. In an ideal world, I would be able to discuss the compositions of PhD fields as broken into race/ethnicity-gender combinations, however, the table that includes these types of combinations for US citizens and permanent residents (Table 7-7) only provides the numbers for the broader categories rather than for the desired discipline-level. For instance, social science numbers are provided for 2002-2012 without specific numbers for economics, anthropology, etc. This approach, therefore, would not allow for an investigation into the main topic of interest, which is the demographic differences between the distinct disciplines–there is too much variety within the larger umbrella categories to discuss the fields’ compositions in this way. Therefore, I limit this discussion to demographics with respect to citizenship and race/ethnicity and, accordingly, use Table 7-4 “Doctoral degrees awarded, by citizenship, field, and race or ethnicity: 2002–12” from the NSF Report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering*** as my data source.

Before getting into the different PhD science fields and their demographics, it’s worth noting the relative sizes of these disciplines. The following treemap depicts the relative sizes of the sciences as defined by NSF data on doctoral degrees awarded in 2012:

treemap2

The size of each squarified rectangle represents the number of degrees awarded within a given field while the color denotes the field’s parent category, as defined by the NSF. (Note that some studies are, in fact, their own parent categories. This is the case for Biological Sciences, Psychology, Computer Sciences, and Agricultural Sciences.) In the upcoming discussion of demographics, we will first discuss raw numbers of degrees earned and the relevant demographic components but will then pivot towards a discussion of percentages, at which point remembering the differences in size will be particularly helpful in piecing together the information into one cohesive idea of the demographics of “the sciences.”****

A decade of demographic snapshots: PhD’s in the sciences

The NSF data specifies two levels of information about the doctoral degrees awarded. The first level identifies the number of degree recipients who are US citizens or permanent residents as well as the number who are temporary residents. Though “[t]emporary [r]esident includes all ethnic and racial groups,” the former category is further broken down into the following subgroups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian or Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, Other or unknown, and White. In our first exploration of the data, we specify the raw number of degrees awarded to individuals in the specific ethnic and racial categories for US citizens and permanent residents as well as the number awarded to temporary residents. In particular, we start the investigation with the following series of stacked area charts (using flexible y-axes given the vastly different sizes of the disciplines):

raw_plot

In this context and for all following visualizations, the red denotes temporary residents while all other colors (the shades of blue-green and black) are ethnic and racial subsets of the US citizens and permanent residents. By illustrating the raw numbers, this chart allow us to compare the growth of certain PhD’s as well as seeing the distinct demographic breakdowns. While overall the number of science PhD’s increased by 39% from 2002 to 2012, Astronomy, Computer Science, Atmospheric sciences, and Mathematics and statistics PhD’s clearly outpaced other PhD growth rates with increases of 143%, 125% 84%, and 80%, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of Psychology PhD’s actually decreased from 2002 to 2012  by 8%. While this was the only science PhD to experience a decline over the relevant 10-year period, a number of other disciplines grew at modest rates. For instance, the number of Anthropology, Sociology, and Agricultural Sciences PhD’s experienced increases of 15%, 16%, and 18% between 2002 and 2012, which pale in comparison to the vast increases seen in Astronomy, Computer Science, Atmospheric sciences, and Mathematics and statistics.

While it is tempting to use this chart to delve into the demographics of the different fields of study, the use of raw numbers renders a comprehensive comparison of the relative sizes of groups tricky. For this reason, we shift over to visualizations using percentages to best get into the meat of the discussion–this also eliminates the need for different y-axes. In presenting the percentage demographic breakdowns, I supply three different visualizations: a series of stacked area graphs, a series of nightingale graphs (essentially, polar stacked bar charts), and a series of straightforward line graphs, which despite being the least exciting/novel are unambiguous in their interpretation:

percent_area

perc_nightingale

perc_line

One of my main interests in these graphs is the prominence of temporary residents in various disciplines. In fact, it turns out that Economics is actually quite exceptional in terms of its percentage of temporary residents, which lingers around 60% for the decade at hand and is at 58% for 2012. (In 2012, out of the remaining 42% that are US citizens or permanent residents, 70% are white, 11% are asian or pacific islander, 3% are black, 3% are hispanic, 0% are american indian or alaskan native, and 13% are other or unknown.) Economics stands with Computer science, Mathematics and statistics, and Physics as one of the four subjects in the sciences for which temporary residents made up a higher percentage of the PhD population than white US citizens or permanent residents consistently from 2002 to 2012. Furthermore, Economics is also the science PhD with the lowest percentage of white US citizens and permanent residents–that is, a mere 30%.  In this sense, the field stands out as wildly different in these graphs from its social science friends (or, more accurately, frenemies). On another note, it is also not hard to immediately notice that Psychology, which is not a social science in the NSF’s categorization, is so white that its nightingale graph looks like an eye with an immensely overly dilated pupil (though anthropology is not far behind on the dilated pupil front).

Also readily noticeable is the thickness of the blue hues in the case of Area and ethnic studies–an observation that renders it undeniable that this subject is the science PhD with the highest percentage of non-white US citizens and permanent residents. Following this discipline would be the other social sciences Anthropology, Sociology, and Political science and public administration, as well as the separately categorized Psychology. However, it is worth noting that the ambiguity of the temporary residents’ racial and ethnic attributes leaves much of our understanding of the prominence of various groups unclear.

Another focal point of this investigation pertains to the time dimension of these visuals. When homing in on the temporal aspect of these demographic snapshots, there is a discouraging pattern–a lack of much obvious change. This is especially highlighted by the nightingale graphs since the polar coordinates allow the 2012 percentages to loop back next to the 2002 percentages and, thus, facilitate for a simple start-to-end comparison. In most cases, the two points in time look incredibly similar. Of course, this does not necessarily mean there has been no meaningful change. For instance, there have been declines in the percentage of white US citizens and permanent residents in the subjects Area and ethnic studies, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, and Political science and public administration, which have then been offset by increases in other groups of individuals. However, the picture is incredibly stagnant for most of the disciplines, especially the hard sciences and the unusually quantitative social science of economics. In pairing the stagnant nature of these demographic snapshots with consistent calls for greater faculty diversity in the wake of campus protests, it is clear that there is a potential bottleneck since such lagging diversity in PhD disciplines can directly contribute to a lack of diversity at the faculty-level.

Endnote

When the public discusses the demographics and diversity of “the sciences,” 1.5 dozen disciplines are being improperly blended together into generalized statements. To better understand the relevant dynamics, individuals should zero in on the discipline-level rather than refer to larger umbrella categories. As it turns out according to our investigation, the demographic breakdowns of these distinct subjects are as fundamentally different as their academic methodologies–methodologies which can be illustrated by the following joke that I can only assume is based on a true story:

As a psychological experiment, an engineer, a chemist, and a theoretical economist are each locked in separate rooms and told they won’t be released until they paint their entire room. They are each given a can of blue paint which holds about half the paint necessary to paint the room and then left alone. A few hours later the psychologist checks up on the three subjects.

(1) The engineer’s walls are completely bare. The engineer explains that he had worked out that there wasn’t enough paint to cover all the walls so he saw no point in starting.

(2) The chemist’s room is painted in faded, streaky blue. “There wasn’t enough paint, so I diluted it,” she explains.

(3) In the economist’s room, the floor and the ceiling are completely blue, and there’s a full can of paint still sitting on the floor. The experimenter is shocked and asks how the economists managed to paint everything. The economist explains, “Oh, I just painted the rational points.”

And with an unwavering appreciation for that bit, I hope to be one of the ~20-30 (who knows?) % of white US citizens/permanent residents in the economics PhD cohort of 2021.

PS-Happy 2016 everyone!

Footnotes

* I had yet to take a driving test at a DMV. I did this successfully at age 21. But, I will not drive your car.

** The NSF divides subjects up into S&E (science and engineering) and non-S&E categories. In this context, I am only discussing the subjects that fall under the umbrella of science. It would be simple to extend the approach and concept to the provided numbers for engineering.

*** This table explains that the exact source for this information is: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, special tabulations of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Completions Survey, 2002–12.

**** In particular, the tiny size of the group of History of Science PhD’s allows for much more variability year-to-year in terms of demographics. Only 19-34 degrees were given out on an annual basis from 2002-2012. In this case, size of the program is responsible for the wildly evident changes in demographic composition.

Code

Data and R scripts necessary to replicate visualizations are now up on my github! See the NSF_Demographics repo. Let me know if you have any questions or issues with the R script in particular.

Further directions for work
  • Create gif of treemap using years 2002-2012 to replace the static version for just 2012
    • Or use a slider via some D3 magic
  • Follow-up by comparing the gender compositions
  • Look into the development and change history of the US Office of Management and Budget for racial and ethnic categories
    • Just curious as to the timeline of changes and how categorization changes affect our available data

© Alexandra Albright and The Little Dataset That Could, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, accompanying visuals, and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alex Albright and The Little Dataset That Could with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.