Barbara Oakley in the WSJ asks:
Why do relatively few women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?
She is responding to an article by Stuart Reges (here) that she summarizes as:
University of Washington lecturer Stuart Reges —in a provocative essay, “Why Women Don’t Code”—suggests that women’s verbal and analytical skills lead to career choices outside STEM. Mr. Reges’s critics say he is making women feel inferior by implying they aren’t interested in tech. I’m a female engineering professor with decades of experience as well as a background in the humanities and social sciences, so perhaps I can lend some perspective to the controversy.
She thinks there is a missing parameter, professor influence. Barbara says:
Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.
Barbara is absolutely right but also incomplete. We were convinced in our first university-wide committee that faculty in the other colleges resented the business college. If that wasn’t enough, later one dean suggested that if we came into the building that housed his college that a bullet-proof vest was in order. We suspect that Barbara is just being kind.
Barbara is right that professors influence students against majors. As department chair we have brought two departmental colleagues on the carpet for negative comments about majors other than accounting. She forgets, however, that faculty influence students towards majors. Students often change their majors in college and faculty have a big influence on those changes.
Sidebar: There is also cultural influences. Everybody is cheering on women in STEM. We don’t really need to list all those movies and books do we? On the other hand, from Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters to Elementary (Our Time Is Up), accountants are always presented in a negative light. End Sidebar.
Barbara has identified a real issue but not completed the picture. Professors influence and often recruit students. Some of them use negative messages while other use positive ones. What she has missed is opportunity. Opportunity is part of the explanation why women are now a majority of accountants in the United States, Canada, and Europe. This is an enormous change over our 40 years teaching accounting that has not happened as completely in STEM. Why did women surmount the barriers in accounting but not as much in STEM? Part of the reason is because of university rules accounting faculty got more opportunity to spread the word while STEM got less.
Essentially all universities have requirements at the university level, college level, and department level. We will call university level requirements general education (GE) and department level the major even though there are minors too. Most GE programs include science and math but but those requirements are often so broad that students don’t get exposed to those fields or take courses that would not count towards those fields. In our 40 years of advising students we doubt any of our advisees ever took physics. Early in our career we advised taking chemistry because in our opinion it and accounting take the same skills. Our success rate approximated zero and eventually we did not persist. Students take calculus for social science (no trig), science for non-scientists, and other less technical courses to fill those requirements. On the other hand, almost every student takes English composition, literature, and a diversity course. STEM faculty don’t get the opportunities to recruit students that humanities faculty get. They should accept part of the responsibility because of their course offerings in GE.
Accounting faculty get the opportunity to influence because of college requirement that all students in the business school take two accounting courses. In addition, there are major requirements that have a smaller impact. For example, departments have chemistry and business or language and business. These required accounting courses are generally taken in the freshmen and sophomore years so accounting professors get an early opportunity to influence students towards a major in accounting and the courses count towards their degree. We know from our surveys that faculty are a big influence on students deciding to major in accounting.
We are not ready to conclude that the personal impact of accounting faculty is more important than the cultural sway of STEM yet. What is clear is that professors have a big impact on majors and it is one of the reasons that women have prospered in accounting over the past half century. We recommend free speech to Barbara. Faculty need the opportunity to make their case with students.