Via Slate comes this article, again about the gender gap in science.

In a study at the United States Air Force Academy, they studied the effect of professor gender on student achievement. USAFA is a great place to study this because it controls for many effects: the students are assigned to sections randomly, the syllabus is standard and set, and all students take the same exam at the end of the term.

The authors found that simply having a female professor essentially erased the gender gap, especially for high-performing students, as well as substantially increasing the probability that women would go on to advanced courses and science degrees.

This is not at all surprising to me. The role of mentor is an extraordinarily important one in the development of the proto-scientist. What I did find interesting is that certain male professors also erase the gender gap between male and female students. I would be extraordinarily interested in the qualities that those professors have. I have some suspicions about those already: calm in temper, casual, reasonably good social skills, fair, empathetic, and with a strong understanding and valuing of a well-rounded student. Or, pretty much, my undergraduate mentor.

My undergrad mentor managed to attract a disproportionate number of female students, both graduate and undergraduate students. Both of his grad students while I knew him were female, and 75% of his undergrads. I don't know how the cluster got started, but I do know how it perpetuated itself: he actually listened to and respected female students. They knew they had a voice in the group and other women saw that when they looked into joining the group. My group now perpetuates itself in the same way: there are a number of women, who are well respected, and that encourages other women to join. This was no small issue for me in joining a group—I felt sure that a group that was welcoming to women would be understanding of my transition. Furthermore, I believe that this cluster is good for those of us who are male students in the group. We're learning now how to become the seeds for when we are postdocs and professors.

The big question for me, then, is how to plant the seeds—my undergrad mentor, my graduate advisors—that nurture the clusters that draw women into physics. Can we plant them now? Can we retrain men to be those exceptional ones? Or do we just have to wait until the old ones die out? nearly gone, at least in the US, so says a new study. (Abstract linked, full article behind a pay wall, summary blog post)

In short, the study finds that boys and girls score the same on math standardized exams through graduation from high school, and that they are taking calculus classes at the same rate. The study then goes on to test the hypothesis that the averages are the same, but that men have a larger standard deviation, and so there are more math geniuses that are men, and finds that, while there are more men than women above the 95th and 99th percentile, that ratio has changed with time and with culture of origin, indicating that this is likely a culturally derived factor.

I find this to jive strongly with my experience. I work in physics, a STEM field with a poor reputation for gender equality, and currently at an institution that is below average, even for our field, even while it is a top-ranked department.

As both a graduate student and as an undergraduate student, I earned a reputation among my peers for being at the top of my class. But I noticed a marked difference between undergrad (when I lived as a woman) and grad (when I live as a man) in how my peers treated that reputation. As a grad student, it was treated matter-of-fact: someone's got to be at the top, eh, it's him. As an undergrad, it was treated as a bit of a challenge to the boys in my class. Not all of them, but some.

I will say, with some relief, that this isn't true for my research groups. I talk more, and have more responsibility now, but I attribute that to being a grad student, rather than an undergrad. I'm supposed to have more responsibility. I think part of the reason for this is that I've worked in two extremely female-friendly groups. My current group has 50% female professors, which is unheard of in my field. My undergrad group was 75% female grad students. With numbers like those, you don't get anywhere if you don't respect and listen to the contributions of women.

All of which is to say that both the numbers and my personal experience uphold the idea that it is cultural factors holding women back from numerical equivalency in STEM fields, both cultural ideas about what women can do and "lifestyle factors" (the ever-popular euphemism for, "hey, some people want to have kids and a life AND do science").

Now, this isn't a new thought for a trans man to have; Ben Barres has advocated this view for a long time. But I feel that it's worth repeating, because while the plural of anecdote isn't data, we're far enough apart in academic careers and fields that I'm adding more perspective.



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