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The Role of Professor Gender

05/19/2009

A quick introduction: Hello!  My name is Julia and I am an astrophysics graduate student along with the other talented authors on this blog.  

Erin’s timing in inviting me to join up with this blog couldn’t have been better; my friend David over at The Debate Link just sent me a new working paper from the National Buereau of Economic Research titled Sex and Science: How Professor Gender Perpetuates the Gender Gap  (apologies – subscription required).

The authors at NBER attempted to discern the role of professor gender in introductory math and science courses in terms of student performance (grades) and continuation in the field (ie pursuing it as a major).  Their institution offers a unique situation to measure this role free of self-selection bias because all students take the same core courses and are randomly assigned professors who all use the same syllabus and exam.  Unfortunately, it’s a unique institution in others ways as well; it’s the United States Air Force Academy.  Its high-achieving students and low class sizes make it somewhat like other small liberal arts colleges, but its extremely low female enrollment (roughly 19%) makes it seem more like a technology institute.  The fact that all students receive a 100% scholarship for tuition, room, and board as well as a monthly stipend and must commit to five years as an Air Force officer probably means it’s a pretty unique bunch of students as well.

Data from the graduating classes of 2000 through 2008 showed that overall, women did not perform as well as men with the same previously measured ability (SAT scores) in the introductory math and science courses.  However, the gender gap begins to close for female students with female professors, and is in fact eliminated for those women with the highest SAT math scores.  There was little effect for men in science, and no effect in the humanities.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to be had here to compare to large public universities where professor interaction in introductory courses is limited and median mathematical ability and preparation is a lot lower, but where a lot of the major scientific research is actually taking place.  Although I wouldn’t consider the USAFA representative of all college students, it’s still an important finding in terms of increasing the representation of women in STEM:

“The fact that professor gender effects are largest among women with strong math skills and a predisposition towards math and science is important because this group of women is, arguably, most suited to science and engineering careers.  If we want to reduce the gender gap, these are precisely the women whom policies should target.”

Of course, this is a nasty cycle we’re in.  Having more female faculty helps attract women to (or keep them in) the sciences, but since there are so few female faculty now, it’s difficult to recruit the newest generation!  I’m infinitely thankful that my faculty adviser at my undergraduate institution was the one female in the department.  The other professors were all great men and fabulous teachers, but there were just many subtle gender dynamics that they just had not experienced and could not have consoled me on or prepared me for.

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