Economic Astronomy: Gender Gaps in Lifetime Earnings

There are two recent studies of gender disparities in science and technology (referred to by the faintly awful acronym “STEM”) getting a lot of play over the last few days. As is often the case with social-science results, the data they have aren’t quite the data you would really like to have, and I think it’s worth poking at them a little, not to deny the validity of the results, but to point out the inherent limitations of the process.

The first is a study of lifetime earnings in various fields that includes this graph showing that women with a Ph.D. earn about the same amount as men with a BA:

i-0c230c85999f45d40200d9badf8b18f6-lifetime_earnings.png

That’s pretty damning. But also a little deceptive, because this is a plot of “lifetime earnings,” which means that they are necessarily doing a social-science analogue of astronomy to make this graph.

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The Problem With Innate Differences

In yesterday’s post about the experience of science, I mentioned that I had both a specific complaint about the article by Alexandra Jellicoe (which I explained in the post) and a general complaint about the class in which the article falls. I want to attempt to explain the latter problem, partly because I think it will be useful, but mostly because it’s stuck in my head, and I need to at least type out the explanation before I can move on to other things.

The article in question doesn’t contain all of the elements I’ll mention below, but I think it clearly falls into a class of articles that I find troublesome. A slightly snarky summary of the class would be: “Women are innately more cooperative and intuitive than men, and how dare you suggest they’re bad at math!” The problem with these articles is that they’re trying to walk a difficult line, and they’re often not clear about what it is that they’re doing, to bad effect.

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Good Advice Is Good Advice

Over at Inside Higher Ed, there’s a list of “survival tips” for women entering grad school in the sciences. It’s a pretty good and pretty typical list of advice– you can find more or less the same advice posted somewhere every fall.

What’s striking about it, though, is that if you stripped all the specific gender references out, it would still be a good list of advice, for students of either gender. Here’s the list with gender-specific terms removed:

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