Don’t Forget the Boys

Don’t forget the boys.  That’s the message in Kathleen Parker’s op-ed piece, “Bring the Boys Along: The White House Council Obama Forgot, in the Washington Post.

Although she makes a few snarky comments along the way (that’s one of the things that columnists need to do to keep up their readership), I agree with the main theme of her article.

As a society, we’ve done an excellent job in the past generation of increasing opportunities and expectations for girls.  Now it’s time to realize that boys need our help, too.

Parker refers to suicide rates, which are much higher for boys than girls, as one indicator of the need for attention to boys in our society.  She could also have pointed to graduation rates, incarceration rates, and lifespan statistics.

The author who has done the best job documenting this issue is Dr. Warren Farrell. His books, such as The Myth of Male Power, are thought-provoking and should be required reading in any class that addresses gender issues in American society.

The topic is fraught with political correctness, myths, and ideology, so it’s one that I rarely bring up.  As the father of four boys and as a man who’s spent quite a bit of time in a non-traditional role (i.e., primary parent), I have strong opinions on the subject.

However, it really would take an entire semester-long class to begin to explore the issue in a way that does justice to the topic.   It would take an entire lecture to just lay out the caveats, the apologies-in-advance, and the careful definitions of terms.  Only after that opening lecture would many listeners begin to put aside their ingrained beliefs and open their ears and minds.  (Just remember what happened to Larry Summers, then-Harvard-President, when he clumsily raised some questions about women-men differences in math and science.)

As a scientist who’s written frequently on the subject of women in chemistry, I’m well aware that there are many subtle societal messages that represent barriers for girls and women in science.  And some of the barriers aren’t so subtle.

Any good discussion needs some statistics, so here are a few for the chemistry profession:

  • The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry earned by women has risen from 29% in 1981 to 55% in 2007 (statistics from the National Science Foundation and  Chemical & Engineering News, 12/3/07). During the same period, the percentage of Ph.D.s earned by women increased from 16% to 38%.
  • The median starting salaries for women and men bachelors-degree chemists are essentially equivalent ($36,300 vs $37,000), as are the salaries for women and men masters-degree chemists ($49,000 vs $46,000).  (These 2007 statistics come from Chemical & Engineering News, 6/2/08.) The data for doctoral-degree chemists are more difficult to interpret, with some years showing parity and some years showing significant disparity.
  • These significant increases in the number of women studying chemistry have not yet translated into comparable numbers among the leadership of the chemistry community, especially in academe. According to 2007 statistics, just 15% of chemistry professors at the top 50 universities are women. (The breakdown by rank is 11% full professor, 22% associate professor, and 22% assistant professor).

Another good place to go when starting a discussion is to consult some of the scientific leaders who have thought deeply on this subject.  Among the scientists who have impressed me with their thoughtfulness and shaped my thinking are Geri Richmond, Dick Zare, Helen Free, and Jo Handelsman.  If you get a chance to hear or read their thoughts on women and science, I highly recommend it.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done in making the world of science more friendly for women (and for men who want to be involved parents), an even more important issue in the coming years is going to be finding ways to advance the education and opportunities of both girls and boys in American society.

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Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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