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Human Capital: Women in Math and Science

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 7, 2013

Reading that only 14% of all physics professors in the US are women and that US women have to demonstrate unusual grit in the classroom to succeed in math and science and pursue STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) careers, I thought of the Khasi.

In a Khasi maternity ward, you might hear cheering when a girl is born but, “‘oh okay, he’ll do” for a boy.

Or, if you visit a Khasi home…

“When we visited the Khasi household of a youngest daughter, if a man
(obviously the husband) came first to greet us, he always said ‘please wait, my
wife (or mother-in-law) is coming.’ And it was the wife who entertained us…
while her husband remained silent in the corner of the room, or in the next room.”

Located in Northeast India, the Khasi is a matrilineal society numbering close to 1 million (2011). From birth, women experience a female world. Their households are led by females, businesses are run by women, property can be inherited only by women. When University of Chicago researchers quantified male and female tendencies to compete, the Khasi women got the top grades.

By contrast, emphasizing the lack of encouragement, the inverse connection between physics and femininity and the wasted human capital, an article in the NY Times Magazine demonstrated how math and science are male dominated. As the author points out, yes, high school and university behavior need to change. However, I suspect we are really talking about a new image and attitude that starts with the family. While we might encourage professors to change, really aren’t we talking about something much more basic?

Your opinion?

Sources and resources: If you feel we are really talking about nature, nurture and women’s ability to compete, then a good starting point is the paper where the patriarchal Maasai are compared to the matrilineal Khasi. Next, the Khasi are further described in this more recent news article, here and here. Perhaps then, the NY Time Magazine article will resound with greater depth. Finally, you might want to refer back to this econlife post on the problems women experience at Harvard Business School.

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