STEM Careers for Women

Woman engineer
Women have more career options than STEM. Courtesy Shutterstock.

6 April 2018 – Folks are going to HATE what I have to say today. I expect to get comments accusing me of being a slug-brained, misogynist reactionary imbicile. So be it, I often say things other people don’t want to hear, and I’m often accused of being a slug-brained imbecile. I’m sometimes accused of being reactionary.

I don’t think I’m usually accused of being mysogynist, so that’ll be a new one.

I’m not often accused of being misogynist because I’ve got pretty good credentials in the promoting-womens’-interests department. I try to pay attention to what goes on in my women-friends’ heads. I’m more interested in the girl inside than in their outsides. Thus, I actually do care about what’s important to them.

Historically, I’ve known a lot of exceptional women, and not a few who were not-so-exceptional, and, of course, I’ve met my share of morons. But, I’ve tried to understand what was going on in all their heads because I long ago noticed that just about everybody I encounter is able to teach me something if I pay attention.

So much for the preliminaries.

Getting more to the point of this blog entry, last week I listened to a Wilson Center webcast entitled “Opening Doors in Glass Walls for Women in STEM.” I’d hoped I might have something to add to the discussion, but I didn’t. I also didn’t hear much in the “new ideas” department, either. It was mostly “woe is us ’cause women get paid less than men,” and “we’ve made some progress, but there still aren’t many women in STEM careers,” and stuff like that.

Okay. For those who don’t already know, STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.” It’s a big thing in education and career-development circles because it’s critical to our national technological development.

Without going into the latest statistics (’cause I’m too lazy this morning to look ’em up), it’s pretty well acknowledged that women get paid a whole lot less than men for doing the same jobs, and a whole lot less than 50% of STEM workers are women despite their making up half the available workforce.

I won’t say much about the pay ranking, except to assert that paying someone less than they’re efforts are worth is just plain dumb. It’s dumb for the employer because good talent will vote with their feet for higher pay. It’s dumb for the employee because he, she, or it should vote with their feet by walking out the door to look for a more enlightened employer. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, you don’t want to be dependent for your income on a a mismanaged company!

Enough said about the pay differential. What I want to talk about here is the idea that, since half the population is women, half the STEM workers should be women. I’m going to assert that’s equally dumb!

I do NOT assert that there is anything about women that makes them unsuited to STEM careers. It is true that women are significantly smaller physically (the last time I checked, the average American woman was 5’4″ tall, while the average American man was 5’10” tall with everything else more or less scaled to match), but that makes no nevermind for a STEM career. STEM jobs make demands on what’s between the ears, not what’s between the shoulders.

With regard to womens’ brains’ suitability for STEM jobs, experience has shown me that there’s no significant (to a STEM career) difference between them and male brains. Women are every bit as adept at independent thinking, puzzle solving, memory tasks, and just about any measurable talent that might make a difference to a STEM worker. I’ve seen no study that showed women to be inferior to men with respect to mathematical or abstract reasoning, either. In fact, some studies have purported to show the reverse.

On the other hand, as far as I know, EVERY culture traditionally separates jobs into “women’s work” and “men’s work.” Being a firm believer in Darwinian evolution, I don’t argue with Mommy Nature’s way, but do ask “Why?”

Many decades ago, my advanced lab instructor asserted that “tradition is the sum total of things our ancestors over the past four million years have found to work.” I completely agree with him, with the important proviso that things change.

Four million years ago, our ancestors didn’t have ceramic tile floors in their condos, nor did they have cars with remote keyless entry locks. It was a lot tougher for them than it is for us, and survival was far less assured.

They were the guys who decided to have men make the hand axes and arrowheads, and that women should weave the baskets and make the soup. Most importantly for our discussion, they decided women should change the diapers.

Fast forward four million years, and we’re still doing the same things, more or less. Things, however, have changed, and we’re now having to rethink that division of labor.

Some jobs, like digging ditches, still require physical prowess, which makes them more suited to men than women. I’m ignoring (but not forgetting) all the manual labor women are asked to do all over the world. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about STEM jobs, which DON’T require physical prowess.

So, why don’t women go after those cushy, high-paying STEM jobs, and, equally significant, once they have one of those jobs, why is it so hard to keep them in them? One of the few things that came out of last week’s webinar (Remember this all started with my attending that webinar?) was the point that women leave STEM careers in droves. They abandon their hard-won STEM careers and go off to do something else.

The point I want to make with this essay is to suggest that maybe the reason women are underrepresented in STEM careers is that they actually have more options than men. Most importantly, they have the highly attractive (to them) option of the “homemaker” career.

Current thinking among the liberal intelligencia is that “homemaker” is not much of a career. I simply don’t accept that idea. Housewife is just as important a job as, say, truck driver, bank president, or technology journalist. So, pooh!

The homemaker option is not open to most men. We may be willing to help out around the house, and may even feel driven to do our part, or at least try to find some part that could be ours to do. But, I can’t think of one of my male friends who’d be comfortable shouldering the whole responsibility.

I assert that four million years of evolution has wired up human brains for sexual dimorphism with regard to “guy jobs” and “girl jobs.” It just feels right for guys to do jobs that seem to be traditionally guy things and for women to do jobs that seem to be traditionally theirs.

Now, throughout most of evolutionary time STEM jobs pretty much didn’t exist. One of the things our ancestors didn’t have four million years ago was trigonometry. In fact, they probably struggled with basic number theory. I did an experiment in high school that indicated that the crows in my back yard couldn’t count beyond two. Australopithecus Paranthropus was probably a better mathematician than that, but likely not by much.

So, one of the things we have now that has avoided being shaped by natural selection pressure is the option to persue a STEM career. It’s pretty much evolutionarily neutral. STEM careers are probably equally attractive (or repulsive) to women and men.

I mention “repulsive” for a very good reason. Preparing oneself for a STEM career is hard.

Mathematics, especially, is one of the few subjects that give many, if not most, people phobias. Frankly, arithmetic lost me on the second day of first grade when Miss Shay passed out a list of addition tables and told us to memorize it. I thought the idea of arithmetic was a gas. Memorizing tables, however, was not on my To Do list. I expect most people feel the same way.

Learning STEM subjects involves a $%^-load of memorizing! So, it’s no wonder girls would rather play with dolls (and boys with trucks) than study STEM subjects. Eventually, playing with trucks leads to STEM careers. Playing with dolls does not.

Grown up girls find they have the option of playing with dolls as a career. Grown up boys don’t. So, choosing a STEM career is something grown-up boys really want to do if they can, but for girls, not so much. They can find something to do that’s more satisfying with less work.

So, they vote with their feet. THAT may be why it’s so hard to get women into STEM careers in the first place, and then to keep them there for the long haul.

Before you start having apoplectic fits imagining that I’m making a broad generalization that females don’t like STEM careers, recognize that what I’m describing IS a broad theoretical generalization. It’s meant to be.

In the real world there are 300 million people in the United States, half of which are women, and each and every one of them gets to make a separate career choice for themself. Every one of them chooses for themself based on what they want to do with their life. Some choose STEM careers. Some don’t.

My point is that you shouldn’t just assume that half of STEM job slots ought be filled by women. Half of potential candidates may be women, but a fair fraction of them might prefer to go play somewhere else. It may be that they find women have more alternatives than do men. You may end up with more men slotting into those STEM jobs because they have less choice.

You know, being a housewife ain’t such a bad gig!

And, You Thought Global Warming was a BAD Thing?

Ice skaters on the frozen Thames river in 1677

10 March 2017 – ‘Way back in the 1970s, when I was an astophysics graduate student, I was hot on the trail of why solar prominences had the shapes we observe them to have. Being a good little budding scientist, I spent most of my waking hours in the library poring over old research notes from the (at that time barely existing) current solar research, back to the beginning of time. Or, at least to the invention of the telescope.

The fact that solar prominences are closely associated with sunspots led me to studying historical measurements of sunspots. Of course, I quickly ran across two well-known anomalies known as the Maunder and Sporer minima. These were periods in the middle ages when sunspots practically disappeared for decades at a time. Astronomers of the time commented on it, but hadn’t a clue as to why.

The idea that sunspots could disappear for extended periods is not really surprising. The Sun is well known to be a variable star whose surface activity varies on a more-or-less regular 11-year cycle (22 years if you count the fact that the magnetic polarity reverses after every minimum). The idea that any such oscillator can drop out once in a while isn’t hard to swallow.

Besides, when Mommy Nature presents you with an observable fact, it’s best not to doubt the fact, but to ask “Why?” That leads to much more fun research and interesting insights.

More surprising (at the time) was the observed correlation between the Maunder and Sporer minima and a period of anomalously cold temperatures throughout Europe known as the “Little Ice Age.” Interesting effects of the Little Ice Age included the invention of buttons to make winter garments more effective, advances of glaciers in the mountains, ice skating on rivers that previously never froze at all, and the abandonment of Viking settlements in Greenland.

And, crop failures. Can’t forget crop failures! Marie Antoinette’s famous “Let ’em eat cake” faux pas was triggered by consistent failures of the French wheat harvest.

The moral of the Little Ice Age story is:

Global Cooling = BAD

The converse conclusion:

Global Warming = GOOD

seems less well documented. A Medieval Warm Period from about 950-1250 did correlate with fairly active times for European culture. Similarly, the Roman Warm Period (250 BCE – 400 CE) saw the rise of the Roman civilization. So, we can tentatively conclude that global warming is generally NOT bad.

Sunspots as Markers

The reason seeing sunspot minima coincide with cool temperatures was surprising was that at the time astronomers fantasized that sunspots were like clouds that blocked radiation leaving the Sun. Folks assumed that more clouds meant more blocking of radiation, and cooler temperatures on Earth.

Careful measurements quickly put that idea into its grave with a stake through its heart! The reason is another feature of sunspots, which the theory conveniently forgot: they’re surrounded by relatively bright areas (called faculae) that pump out radiation at an enhanced rate. It turns out that the faculae associated with a sunspot easily make up for the dimming effect of the spot itself.

That’s why we carefully measure details before jumping to conclusions!

Anyway, the best solar-output (irradiance) research I was able to find was by Charles Greeley Abbott, who, as Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1907 to 1944, assembled an impressive decades-long series of meticulous measurements of the total radiation arriving at Earth from the Sun. He also attempted to correlate these measurements with weather records from various cities.

Blinded by a belief that solar activity (as measured by sunspot numbers) would anticorrelate with solar irradiation and therefore Earthly temperatures, he was dismayed to be unable to make sense of the combined data sets.

By simply throwing out the assumptions, I was quickly able to see that the only correlation in the data was that temperatures more-or-less positively correlated with sunspot numbers and solar irradiation measurements. The resulting hypothesis was that sunspots are a marker for increased output from the Sun’s core. Below a certain level there are no spots. As output increases above the trigger level, sunspots appear and then increase with increasing core output.

The conclusion is that the Little Ice Age corresponded with a long period of reduced solar-core output, and the Maunder and Sporer minima are shorter periods when the core output dropped below the sunspot-trigger level.

So, we can conclude (something astronomers have known for decades if not centuries) that the Sun is a variable star. (The term “solar constant” is an oxymoron.) Second, we can conclude that variations in solar output have a profound affect on Earth’s climate. Those are neither surprising nor in doubt.

We’re also on fairly safe ground to say that (within reason) global warming is a good thing. At least its pretty clearly better than global cooling!