STEM Gender Gaps and Draft Dodging

It's always a pleasure to see former students doing well, and to that end, we invited one of my former thesis students, Mike Mastroianni, class of 2007, to give a colloquium talk last week in the department. Mike went to physics grad school for a couple of years after graduation, but decided he was more interested in education issues, and is now in the process of writing his dissertation (to be defended in a few weeks) in a Curriculum and Instruction program at the University at Albany.

He gave a really interesting talk on his thesis work, looking at the evolution of gender ratios in STEM fields in various historical periods. One of the most interesting stories he looked at concerned this graph of undergraduate degrees awarded in biological sciences over the last several decades:

Undergraduate degrees in biological science from 1970-2011. Undergraduate degrees in biological science from 1970-2011.

It's well known that the gender balance in biology has shifted dramatically over the years, and one of the most dramatic shifts is in the mid-to-late 1970's, when the field went from massively male-dominated to near gender parity. Some of this is a general shift in the demographics of college, as more women went to college (leading to the significant increase of the pink line in the figure), but a huge part of the story is the dramatic crash in the number of degrees awarded to men during the period marked by the green box in the figure.

So, what's the story there? Well, Mike argued that the root cause was the same thing that's at the center of everything in the 1970's: Vietnam.

Specifically, he pointed to the way draft deferments were used to "channel" men into particular majors, quoting at length from a planning document that was published in... I think it was Ramparts magazine (I can't read the exact citation). This included the following remarkably blunt quotes (lifted from a PDF of the slides that Mike sent me):

Throughout his career as a student, the pressure—the threat of loss of deferment—continues. It continues with equal intensity after graduation. His local board requires periodic reports to find out what he is up to. He is impelled to pursue his skill rather than embark upon some less important enterprise and is encouraged to apply his skill in an essential activity in the national interest. The loss of deferred status is the consequence for the individual who has acquired the skill and either does not use it or uses it in a nonessential activity.

From the individual’s viewpoint, he is standing in a room which has been made uncomfortably warm.
Several doors are open, but they all lead to various forms of recognized, patriotic service to the Nation, Some accept the alternatives gladly—some with reluctance. The consequence is approximately the same.

One of the "essential activities" identified by this process was medicine-- deferments continued to be provided for students going to medical school all the way to the end of the war, after many other subjects were dropped. And majoring in biological science is one of the obvious paths to a medical degree. The peak in degrees awarded to men around 1976, Mike argued, comes about 3-4 years after the end of the draft. This is about the time required for students who entered college planning to head to medical school as a way to stay out of Vietnam to finish their degrees; the subsequent drop reflects a return to "normal" after the specific incentive to go into biology went away.

This is basically a plausibility argument, but he showed similar patterns in a number of other areas. There was a sharp increase in birth rates a year or so after policy shifted from providing an automatic deferment on getting married to providing deferments only to new fathers. There's a similar peak-and-decline in the number of education degrees earned by men in the late 60's, the peak coming about 3-4 years after the automatic deferment for teachers was dropped. And there's a similar pattern for Ph.D. degrees, with the peak around 5-6 years after the deferment for graduate school in general was dropped (but retained for medical school).

So, while it's a somewhat circumstantial case, taken all together, it's a pretty convincing argument that the historical pattern we see was massively influenced by Vietnam. And while Mike didn't mention them, there are similar effects in grade inflation stats and the carefully selected starting point for the statistics used in bad defenses of "the humanities".

As somebody in the audience pointed out, this is kind of remarkable given that the number of men actually drafted was a small fraction of the population compared to, say, WWII. But a couple of professors who clearly recall that era confirmed the disproportionate effect that fear of the draft had on setting people's priorities.

So, anyway, a very cool talk from Mike (who also looked at other periods of the same graph, and other disciplines), and a good reminder of how complex and interconnected things are when you start dealing with social science.


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By Evan Berkowitz (not verified) on 16 Mar 2015 #permalink

I am 100% certain that the general statistics on men with college degrees -- any degree -- shows this same effect. It took 25 years for the percentage of men between 25 and 29 with a college degree to climb back to where it was after Vietnam. By then, women had passed men and kept on climbing. See this old article of mine:…

I will mention in passing that one math department had an unwritten policy to give blanket A grades in all graduate classes. It took many years for a student to fully fail out of the program, just long enough for the war to wind down. I have data for one university that clearly shows grade inflation happening during the Vietnam draft era.

I also lived through part of that era (as an undergrad) and will confirm the influence of the draft on many decisions made by men my age, but it was a bigger deal for those just a few years younger than I am. I was still an undergrad when the lottery was implemented, and when my number was just barely high enough to not be drafted that year, my draft board shifted me from a temporarily still-valid student deferment to 1A just long enough to shift me to "will never be drafted". That was a year before the draft ended in 1973. In the late 60s, you had to go into the "right" graduate program to keep a deferment after getting a BS degree.

The number drafted may not have been large, but most men who were drafted were going into combat for a year. Odds of coming out alive were high, but everyone knew someone who had lost that lottery and is now on the Wall. And for the years I am thinking about, it was abundantly clear that the war had always been pointless and that the last half of the names on the Wall were merely helping us save face.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 16 Mar 2015 #permalink

As I said, the faculty in attendance all agreed that the Vietnam story made a lot of sense. Mike said he's gotten a surprising amount of pushback on this from conference reviewers and the like, some of whom apparently want to attribute everything to Title IX in 1972. While that would clearly play a role in increasing the participation of women in science, it's a little bizarre to me to think that it would drive men away...

Mike said he’s gotten a surprising amount of pushback on this from conference reviewers and the like, some of whom apparently want to attribute everything to Title IX in 1972.

You don't need a lot of training in economics (I have never taken a formal course myself) to understand that when there is an incentive to do something, people are more likely to do it. Reducing the probability that, "I will be drafted and sent to a foreign land to be shot at by insurgents who are indistinguishable from the population we're supposedly protecting from them, because said insurgents are a significant fraction of that population," to zero sounds like a pretty good incentive to me. But then this was always a theoretical construction to me. Lots of people like CCPhysicist, above, had that incentive IRL, and many of them took it.

Title IX may have helped boost the numbers of female bachelor degree recipients in biology from 1972-1976. But that rate plateaued after 1976, and didn't start climbing again until about 1990. You need to invoke some other cause to explain what happened in 1990.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Mar 2015 #permalink

@5: I never had the incentive, because I was going to college anyway and I was bit too young to be caught up in the peak years of the draft. The reference to the lottery was because you might not know that all student deferments were cancelled the next year (just before the draft was canceled), so I would have been eligible (possibly with a new number) if the draft board had not done me a favor.

@4: Title IX never even crossed my mind, but that would be where the data I posted many years ago would be relevant. When looking at the graph, you have to subtract about 5 or 6 years to get a sense of when that particular cohort actually in or just graduating from college. That means the fraction of young women attending college soared up until 1970, then plateaued for a decade. Title IX might explain the jump that starts in 1990, but those are the boomers KIDS, which I think is a more important factor.

That graph of all college grads also suggests that the growth of women in biology isn't all that different from the growth in all majors looked at collectively, even the jump starting in 1990. To claim otherwise would be to suggest that women are disproportionately in STEM compared to men, with a concentration in biology. It would be interesting to see the representation numbers, but I only expect to see that women are disproportionately in biological sciences when they choose STEM. I attribute that to HS biology classes and also, I might add, the way physics is viewed in HS.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 17 Mar 2015 #permalink

The first slip of paper I got in my campus mailbox as a freshman in 1971 informed me "no new 2-S deferments will be issued". All the upperclassmen had them (if they wished) and those deferments were an extremely strong motivation to stay in school. I got a bad lottery number, passed my physical and lingered between 1-A and 1-H until the draft was over. I learned to "start drinking heavily" during that time. I had never touched the stuff until then. Thank god for math and physics.

Is the percentage of women vs men still climbing? The disproportional representation is apparent at my university.. We have over 65% female attendance and a great deal higher percentage if you look at Medicine and Veterinary Science.