Why are there so few women in science (and auto racing)?
People have been asking me this question a lot lately and I'm getting really tired of it. It would have been (and was) a good question 30 years ago. It's not now. Today there aren't so few women in science; there are so few women in some areas of science- like the physical sciences and engineering. There are now lots and lots of women in other areas of science. Ah the life sciences spring to mind—you know an area of science where the majority of students (grad and undergrad) are women.
Today the real question is "Why are there so many women in the life sciences and so few women in the physical sciences and engineering?" and that's the one we should be answering (regardless of what we are asked).
I'm not sure what the right answers are but I am sure know some wrong ones:
Wrong answer 1. "Women aren't interested in physical sciences and engineering." Right just like in the past women didn't go into life sciences, medicine, law or work outside of the home, because we weren't interested. We sure are interested now; what changed?
Wrong answer 2. "Women don't have the abilities to go into physical sciences and engineering." At the risk of being repetitious, right just like in the past women didn't go into life sciences, medicine, law or work outside of the home, because we didn't have the abilities. We sure do now; go read Janet Hyde.
The life sciences—now they're a lot like drag racing (that's sentence that I'll bet has never been written before). In 1976 Shirley Muldowney become the first woman to win an event in the National Hot Rod Association's fastest division (that would be top fuel cars for you not in the know). She went on to win 17 more events and three series championships. She's been followed by dozens of women (over 40 running nationally in the 2007 season alone). And they win. Pro stock bike driver Angelle Sampey has won 41 races and three series championships while Ashley Force Hood is the points leader for this year's funny cars.
If drag racing is the life sciences; Indy cars are the physical sciences. In 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500; In the 32 years since then there have been only four other women who have run Indy cars. Now I know that Danica won a race in Japan and is fifth in the points standings this year and that Sarah Fisher is a driver owner, but that's not a lot of progress in what's been a lot of years.
And NASCAR, that's got to be mechanical engineering. In 1977 Janet Guthrie ran 19 NASCAR races (yes that would be the same Janet Guthrie; she was pretty busy in 1977). The last time any woman ran a national NASCAR race was in 2005.
So whether it's science or auto racing, the question should be "Why are more women in and more successful in one subfield and not in another?" Now that's a good question; one that we should be asking and doing our best to answer.