This is just a hypothesis: gender differences in risk taking contribute to differences in participation in science and engineering disciplines. I have no data, just a wish to speculate from personal experience.

Individual tasks in math, science and engineering are risky. One might not find a proof to a theorem, an individual experiment or design will likely not work, etc. In these tasks, one risks failure even after investing considerable effort, i.e. the return on effort is not guaranteed. It turns out that the gender gap in intellectual risk taking is well known. I also wonder if the macho environment that is sometimes associated with these disciplines is not so much a function of their being male dominated, but rather that bullishness goes along with taking risks. I remember well a fellow Caltech undergraduate boasting about spending all night trying to solve a problem in his general relativity class that the instructor later revealed was an unsolved problem. If it’s a choice between boasting or despairing quietly, boasting seems like the option that can keep one going.

In the long run, however, it seems to be the long run that matters. Could it be a coincidence that so many of the women in math, science and engineering I know happen to regularly run marathons or triathlons? And that some of the men who used to boast about solving hard problems are now managing risk algorithmically for financial and IT firms (OK, I admit, I don’t know what the latter signifies)? Perhaps the biggest risk is in not pursuing a scienceĀ  or engineering education, which is sure (ahem) to be interesting and which is in constant demand by employers. And if one can boost young women’s willingness to apply themselves to problems where they risk not being able to figure out an answer, by e.g. building their overall confidence, then by all means, let’s.

  One Response to “Taking risks: a speculation on gender & science”

  1. i’m thinking selection bias

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