An article in French about the number of scientific women in France is available here: Femmes Scientifiques en France : Chiffres et Etat des Lieux.
International Women’s Day is the perfect occasion to observe that, over time, women have made great strides in their involvement and success in science and technology fields. Unfortunately, many of these improvements seem to have stagnated in recent years. Some of the old culprits, like cultural bias, may still be at work, but they are not alone. It would pay for institutions to invest in researching the reasons underlying today’s gender imbalance in the sciences, and to implement more relevant, innovative solutions.
On this March 8th, International Women’s Day, we could take the time to reflect on the disparity between numbers of women and men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. At the same time, though, the results might not surprise us. Men still significantly outnumber women in engineering and computer science studies, while female graduates dominate in psychology and medical sciences.
Overall, in STEM jobs, women hold less than a quarter of positions, even though they account for almost half of the U.S. workforce. What might surprise us is that this figure hasn’t changed over the past decade, finds a 2011 report by the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Between 2000 and 2009, the proportion of females among workers with a college education increased from 46 to 49%, and yet their share of STEM jobs held steady at only 24%.
What is interesting to note is that women working in STEM fields earn 33% more than their counterparts in other areas; men in science do not enjoy the same salary advantage over their non-STEM peers. “As a result,” the report points out, “the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs.” Within the STEM community itself, the pay gap is actually the smallest – only seven cents – in engineering, one of the disciplines with the fewest women of all. Odd, then, that more women are not choosing, or not sticking with, careers in these fields.
Clearly, there’s more to it than money. Some of the reasons believed to contribute to this phenomenon are as well known as the gender imbalance itself. A lack of female role models in the sciences is one cause, of a chicken-and-the-egg nature: Seeing more women succeed in science might help girls consider this a viable path for themselves. But, for this to happen, we need to get more women into science, first… Simple visibility could help get a virtuous circle started. Outreach efforts on the part of women established in the STEM field and public awareness events, like International Women’s Day, highlight very real cases of success on which younger scientists can model themselves.
Although matters have certainly improved, gender stereotypes still appear to discourage some women from pursuing fields like math and physics. According to the New York Times, among mathematically precocious youth “30 years ago, boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.” Catherine Hill of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) told the Times, “That’s not biology at play, it doesn’t change so fast.” A report published by the AAUW found ample evidence of cultural bias at work, such as women needing to publish more than men to be considered the equals of their peers, and also of a susceptibility in women to believe suggestions that they are less skilled in math. Experiments showed that when a group of similarly skilled male and female students were given a math test, if they were told that men perform better, the men did indeed far outscore their female counterparts. There was hardly any difference in scores if no mention was made of differing performance.
One concrete factor, acting even after a woman secures a job in a STEM field, is an underrecognition of her success. AWIS reports that, relative to the number of female PhDs and full professors in a given discipline, women are awarded fewer scholarly distinctions than men. In genetics, for example, over the first decade of the 2000s, females represented more than 25% of full professors. During the same period, though, they received only about 7% of scholarly prizes. Recognition, like that provided by such awards, is both motivating for the individual and important for career advancement. The lack of recognition for female STEM professionals may be tied to the observed phenomenon that women need to achieve even more than their male colleagues to be considered on equal standing.
The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) puts part of the blame on unconscious bias held by both sexes. In a study from 1999, researchers found that a group of evaluators – men and women – chose male job seekers over female candidates, even when the CVs were identical. Subjects even reported that the man applying for work had more adequate experience than the woman, although the resumes were literally identical, apart from the name at the top. Since women, too, preferred to hire “Brian” over “Karen”, the AWIS concludes that there is no “malicious intent or overt stereotyping, but rather an unconscious bias that associates science with men.” Given the unchanging proportions of women in the STEM world, one may think this effect is still at work today.
Cornell researchers Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, however, disagree. Their 2011 study, based on a review of the last 20 years of data, showed that certain claims of discrimination in grant reviews, interviews and hiring are no longer valid. The authors argue that accepting them uncritically will only prevent understanding the current causes of unequal representation between sexes and finding solutions.
Though the reasons behind the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields may be difficult to pinpoint and even harder to change, the country has a clear interest in improving this situation. The growth in STEM occupations is projected to take off from here, increasing by 17% from 2008 to 2018, reports the U.S. Department of Commerce, compared to only 9.8% in other fields. As the authors recognize, “STEM workers drive our nation’s innovation and competitiveness by generating new ideas, new companies, new industries. … Although still relatively small in number, the STEM workforce has an outsized impact on a nation’s…economic growth and overall standard of living.” Given the anticipated explosion in the number of such jobs, the STEM community would be doing the entire country a disservice by neglecting half of its potential candidates.
Ceci and Williams advocate providing young women and girls with realistic information about career opportunities in the hard sciences and providing them with role models in these fields. This early intervention is important, but the risk remains high of losing women at every subsequent stage, from undergraduate studies, to grad school, to tenured positions. The two researchers show how “fertility/lifestyle choices, both free and constrained” remain powerful factors. “The tenure system has strong disincentives for women to have children; these disincentives are why more women in the academy are childless than men.”
In their view, federal agencies and universities have an opportunity to make a difference by funding research into promising and innovative solutions. A report on gender issues in the sciences, produced by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, for example, suggests strategies that could alter the usual course of careers, offering a more flexible route to the same destination: “tenure track positions segueing from part-time to full-time…adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing…supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave…”
In short, there could be many solutions, taking scientists just a little way off the beaten path. What it will take is a focused effort to research the causes, and the resources to implement new systems. As Ceci and Williams acknowledge, “the linear career path of the modal male scientist of the past my not be the only route to success”. Undoubtedly, it is not. The entire STEM community and, in turn, all the rest of us, stand to benefit from realizing it.
To find out more: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering – Statistics from the National Science Foundation AWIS Historical Data AWIS video series exploring the process of granting awards, and providing solutions for dealing with unconscious bias. Why So Few? – A report (2010) from the Association of American University Women on social barriers that block women’s participation and progress in STEM fields.