Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes

  • Y. Xie &
  • Kimberlee A. Shauman
Harvard University Press: 2003. 336 pp. $59.95, £38.95

Do young women take fewer mathematics and science courses in high school than young men, leaving them less prepared and therefore less likely to major in science and engineering fields in college? Is a woman with a bachelor's degree in science and engineering more likely to have begun her college career as a science major, or on a non-science track? This book, ten years in the making, offers definitive and surprising answers to these and other long-standing questions about women in science.

Using an inventive approach to deal with the paucity of data, Yu Xie and Kimberlee Shauman examine the question of women's under-representation in science by combining a 'life-course perspective' with the statistical analysis of 17 nationally representative data sets.

The life-course perspective assumes that major transitions in people's lives are “age-dependent, interrelated, and contingent on (but not determined by) earlier experiences and societal forces”. By contrast, the more familiar conceptualization of career trajectories in science and engineering is a “science pipeline”. This pipeline is unidirectional: participants enter the pipeline by taking maths and science courses at school, and leak from it at various points when they stop pursuing coursework or careers in science. And it is one-dimensional, regarding women's relationship to science in isolation from everything else.

The analysis of multiple data sets allows the authors to construct 'synthetic cohorts' of women, or 'hypothetical cohorts whose life history is constructed from real cohorts', whose career processes can be compared to those of synthetic cohorts of male counterparts. The composite portrait generated should reasonably represent the lifetime career trajectories of the population of women in science.

The care that the authors take with their empirical approach allows them to offer definitive answers to important questions. They find that although young men are twice as likely as women to enter college with the intention of majoring in science or engineering, this is not explained by gender differences in high-school maths achievement or coursework. The gender gap in mathematics achievement is small and has been declining, and girls not only take as many maths and science courses as boys, but also get significantly better grades in them.

More surprisingly, Xie and Shauman find that the majority of men who get baccalaureate degrees in science or engineering pursue those degrees throughout their college years, whereas most of the women who graduate in these fields enter science and engineering during college after starting on non-science tracks. This discovery complicates the unidirectional image of the leaky pipeline.

Several chapters in the book point to the role that having children plays in women's career trajectories. Married women with children are most likely to leave science and engineering after completing a degree. They are also less likely to be employed, promoted or geographically mobile than either their male counterparts or women, whether married or single, who do not have children. Thus, Xie and Shauman believe that the gender gap in parenting responsibilities is a barrier to women's progress in science careers.

They offer few policy recommendations, but at least one seems new. Given the likelihood that a woman who leaves college with a science or engineering degree began her studies in a non-science field, educators need to figure out how to make studying science more attractive to women who are currently majoring in something else. Recruitment at the undergraduate level may be at least as important as retention.

Xie and Shauman's findings also provide further evidence for the idea that employers should embrace policies that increase both flexibility (such as job-sharing and flexi-time) and the availability of on-site childcare for working mothers.

It is important to note that the methodology that enables Xie and Shauman to provide us with definitive answers to some kinds of questions is a blunt instrument when it comes to others. For example, the authors are explicitly unable to address any possible school-level influences on young women's career plans, and cannot distinguish between physics, which currently attracts few women, and the biological sciences, in which women earn as many or more degrees than men. Nor can they offer insight into questions of institutional climate and practice and their effects, including effects on post-undergraduate leakage from science.

This is not to disparage the book for what it does not do — Xie and Shauman's careful research answers hard questions that have, in the past, seemed virtually unanswerable — but simply to note the limitations inherent in using the kind of data available to them. Their work should serve as a stimulus to further research applying equally careful and creative approaches to the many questions that remain.