Why aren’t there more women in science?

You may wonder why there aren’t more women in science.

But when women in some countries have to fight tooth and nail for the right to a basic education

When male undergraduate students are more likely than equally qualified female counterparts to be offered mentoring and research opportunities…

When scientific articles with female lead authors are reviewed more poorly than those headed by male authors…

When there are no structures in place in many universities that allow women to start a family and continue on an academic path…

When universities are more likely to hire a man than a woman (despite equal qualifications) for a faculty position….

When an accomplished science writer who refuses to work for free is called an “urban whore”

When representations of scientists in the popular media are largely limited to men…with women usually relegated to supporting roles,and required to be physically attractive to be present at all

When even  our interpretations of data can be strongly gender biased…

…you may still be wondering. But I’m not. I’m living it.

Gender bias against women in science doesn’t necessarily take the form of acute incidents of bigotry that we can point to and say “See? Here it is.” Rather, it’s a constant, unrelenting message: “You don’t measure up, you will never be good enough. Stop trying. This is too hard for you.” After years of hearing that, it’s hard not to internalize it.

Most of the women from my cohort, now five years out from graduate school, have either left academia altogether or are trapped in low-paying temporary jobs as adjunct instructors. It’s not because of their incompetence.

If you actually do want to improve the participation of women in science, things need to be changed at multiple levels. As someone who has gone through the process, from a kindergartener to postdoctoral fellow, here are just a few suggestions based on my observations:

 1. We need to change how women scientists are represented in the media.

Are girls seeing “Thor” going to be inspired by a young woman astrophysicist, or are they going to feel alienated because most of them don’t look like Natalie Portman?

From http://screencrush.com/thor-2-poster-dark-world-asgard/
From http://screencrush.com/thor-2-poster-dark-world-asgard/

Maybe that’s a bad example. Hollywood standards of beauty are always going to be ridiculous (and I have to give credit to Marvel for trying to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers). But what about popular science programs? Does every woman depicted on a science show have to be sexy and deferential to the male lead? How many women scientists are regularly interviewed in the news? Can you think of any with as much prominence as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox or Bill Nye? Is it because there aren’t equally qualified women?

“In a recent episode of Science Club, for example, the guest scientists included the bald, bespectacled Ian Henderson, alongside the glamorous Molly Stevens, the first female scientist to have been featured in Vogue. The not-so-subliminal message is that female guests require beauty as well as a PhD to be on the show.
The blame for all of this lies off screen, with the producers and programme-makers. I’ve worked as a writer on a TV show where certain male producers only invited models to auditions. Earlier in my career – despite a background in physics, journalism and broadcasting – I regularly lost reporting and presenting jobs to former models and glamorous celebrities with no relevant qualifications.”  (from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/10350039/Women-in-TV-science-time-to-shift-out-of-Top-Gear.html)

Girls need relatable role models, and they need to see them on television and in movies. Numbers matter. Visibility matters.

2. High school teachers need to encourage and challenge girls as much as boys:

“In elementary school, girls and boys perform equally well in math and science. But by the time they reach high school, when those subjects begin to seem more difficult to students of both sexes, the numbers diverge. Although the percentage of girls among all students taking high-school physics rose to 47 percent in 1997 from about 39 percent in 1987, that figure has remained constant into the new millennium. And the numbers become more alarming when you look at AP classes rather than general physics, and at the scores on AP exams rather than mere attendance in AP classes. The statistics tend to be a bit more encouraging in AP calculus, but they are far worse in computer science. Maybe boys care more about physics and computer science than girls do. But an equally plausible explanation is that boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counselors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” (from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0)

3. Faculty members need to identify promising young undergraduates and mentor them.

I was fortunate to grow up with a scientist mother, and I was mentored from high school through graduate school by several college professors. I can’t stress enough how important their influence on me was.

“The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” (from

4. Universities need to recognize the institutional biases against women and take concrete steps to mitigate them.

A good place to start in the hiring process is with blind applications. Another is by promoting family-friendly working conditions for all faculty members. Challenges will obviously vary by university, department, and program, but if you’re an administrator and wondering how to improve the situation for your women faculty, my advice is simple: Ask them what they need.

5. We all need to be reading more from women science writers. Here’s a place to start.

We all have to work to change this atmosphere. Whether it’s through participating in mentoring programs, increasing our own visibility, challenging sexist comments, or improving the quality of the hiring or reviewing process in our departments, the onus is on everyone. In the words of my brilliant friend, @lisatwight: “Find a way.”

What are your ideas?



UPDATE: This kind of behavior, which women (including me) experience all the time, should be added to the list of reasons.


20 thoughts on “Why aren’t there more women in science?

    • Jennifer Raff October 14, 2013 / 6:52 am

      Some interesting points there. I think it’s telling that the author is NOT a scientist, and therefore doesn’t understand completely the “fulfillment’ aspect of a career in research. I’m one of those postdocs making a salary small enough that I can barely get by…but I love what I do and have a hard time imagining that I’d be as happy doing anything else. That being said, he makes a good point about why many young women don’t consider science as a rational career choice. Women aren’t fools–if they see a profession that has a high barrier to entry, pays poorly, and *also* is losing respect and community support, why on earth would they choose that path? (Unless compelled by other factors, like I was).

      Thanks for posting!

  1. Adam Perrotta October 13, 2013 / 6:17 pm

    I think that the under-representation of women in science is more of a symptom of a greater problem than a problem in and of itself. I think the problem lies with the scientific community.

    1. The is no lack of interest in science, by men or by women. Science job fairs are mobbed (I attended one on October 7, 2013). PhD programs reject highly qualified candidates. Getting a job in science can take a year or more. We do not need to encourage more young people to study science (because they are already doing that). We need to insist that academia, industry, and government tap further into existing talent.

    2. Scientists need to be told, quite forcefully, that mentoring others is one of the moral and ethical responsibilities of being a scientist. Science is about generating knowledge. The more we have in the field, the better. Every scientist out there was mentored by other scientists, thus mentoring must be paid forward. A scientist unwilling to mentor another is guilty of professional malfeasance.

    3. Research universities need to be told, even more forcefully, that federal funding is not a constitutional right. Make (or at least threaten to make) funding contingent on several conditions.
    a. If the university has a Division 1 sports program, a certain percentage of those revenues must be used to fund scientific research, or all federal funding (including student aid) will be withheld.
    b. Require that universities (depending on several factors) add X tenure track positions to their faculty every Y number of years. Consequently, the universities must also increase their post-doc positions and PhD slots by a proportionate amount. Failure to do so will result in funding being withheld.
    c. Universities should have a “shall admit” standard for admission to a PhD program. In other words, anybody meeting said standard will automatically be admitted. Universities are flush with money. They just do not put enough of it toward science.

    4. Private corporations should have tax breaks and grants (e.g., SBIR) structured on the scientific commitment. Companies that lay off large numbers of scientists need to be hit with penalties.

    These proposals appear gender neutral on the surface but women (and men) cannot flourish in science if the powers that be drag their heels. Our society excels at wasting talent. I have an MS in biochemistry but did not get accepted into a PhD program. Now I work as a freight handler. Something is wrong here.

    • Jennifer Raff October 14, 2013 / 6:55 am

      “Scientists need to be told, quite forcefully, that mentoring others is one of the moral and ethical responsibilities of being a scientist.”
      I couldn’t agree more. It is.

      As for your funding ideas, you’re spot-on that it’s the heart of the problem. The lack of support for science is strangling the entire field. I don’t know if we could ever convince universities to divert resources from athletics into science, but it certainly is a disparity that’s really telling about what our priorities are.

  2. Adam Benton October 13, 2013 / 6:30 pm

    The higher up a member of staff is the more likely it’ll be that they’ll be around for a very long time; what with tenure and all. This means any change at the grass roots level could take decades before it manifests throughout the entirety of academia. As such, I think getting existing members of staff involved with equality initiatives (such as the blind applications you suggest) is as important as inspiring more young women to get involved with STEM in the first place.

    I don’t want to be in the position where we have to wait for a generation to die off before any major progress can be made.

    • Jennifer Raff October 14, 2013 / 6:58 am

      I don’t want to wait either. The older professors I know are really bewildered that I and my peers can’t simply walk into a job like they did. Many of them don’t understand how desperate the situation is for the average graduate. But you’re absolutely right–they’re the ones who can start bringing about changes. We have to have a place for women to *go* once they’ve completed their PhDs!

  3. Swarn Gill October 14, 2013 / 8:06 am

    Wonderful blog post as always. Thank you! I’ve seen some arguments from the nature point of view. About women being better at diverting their energy into things they know they are good at, and men being more stubborn as an advantage for getting through things like math and physics. While I don’t discount the work of psychologists, before we fix the things you’ve mentioned I think it’s difficult to determine in root causes like that. Furthermore I believe that most nature tendencies can be overcome through effective nurturing. And there is no reason not to provide nurture equally amongst genders.

    What’s clear though is that it’s just still a patriarchal society. Really across the board. The arts have the same problem. I foolishly thought that the arts would be more egalitarian since if women were discouraged from science they must be doing well on the other side of things. Lo and behold that’s not true. Whether it’s the film and TV industry, or the display of artwork in major museums. Even if they focus on contemporary art. Male artists dominate, especially since most curators are male. Though it is getting better.

    Numbers are improving everywhere, but it’s a slow climb. As you say the problem is that it’s subtle and not an open bigotry type situation where you can easily fix. It requires continued vigilance, and hopefully with each generation it gets better.

    • badsciencewikipedia November 1, 2013 / 1:28 am

      It is so frustrating in the arts, the worship of male artists. I do find women scientists to be much more supportive of each other than women artists.

  4. Alan Doyle October 14, 2013 / 8:55 pm

    I think these are antiquated comments about the lack of women in the field of science. When I attended medical school from 1985 through 1989, about half of my class were women! http://www.pcom.edu

  5. queenanon October 15, 2013 / 12:14 am

    Reblogged this on 紫木蘭 and commented:
    Thank you for this illuminating article. All kudos to you for highlighting this important issue.

  6. Jerry A. October 15, 2013 / 8:22 am

    Vote! No, really, Vote! Encourage your educated friends to vote. Think about the issues that matter to you, and vote accordingly. Vote not only in national elections, but in *all* elections, especially locally for municipal and school board elections. Think about whether or not a candidate for office promotes or damages science, and vote accordingly. Older scientists (like me) can mentor, can teach, can do outreach into schools, and we do. We can’t increase funding, can’t increase support and respect for science careers, can’t promote science-based education (instead of a creation- and footbaw-based indoctrination), can’t push back against the know-nothing anti-science politicians by ourselves. It is those anti-science politicians and school boards who are making a great living tearing down science and by extension tearing down our science-based society for their own narrow-minded gain. Our system will not, can not change, unless we make it change through our political system.

  7. Eric Mills October 15, 2013 / 4:56 pm

    Great post. On a related note, the American Association of University Women put together this a couple of years ago. It’s an excellent summary of a variety of research on the causes of inequality in STEM fields and measures that can be taken to address them.

  8. spradlig October 17, 2013 / 7:52 pm

    I can’t speak for research science specifically. Or for women, I’m a guy. However, I worked as an aerospace engineer for 11 years – both on the civilian science side and military side. I have a BSME and an MSEE. I loved being any engineer. While I loved the work it became so time consuming and stressful to deal with the diseased and wholly unethical business environment that I finally stopped working in the field.

    Let me be clear, I spent most of my adult life getting the education and experience necessary to be in exactly the position I dreamed of. I achieved that position and loved the work. Only to leave the field entirely. I am not happy not doing that work; However, I was much more miserable doing it though because of the business environment.

    I once heard on the radio from a CEO of a major tech company that we needed to attract more people into STEM careers. The rest of his interview time was spent on how the US gov could accomplish that. Not a minute of his time was spent on how industry could attract more people to STEM careers by making the careers more attractive. You know why? Because that would be expensive.

    If there weren’t enough MBAs what is the solution? Better pay, better benefits, no layoffs, etc, etc. What is the solution when there aren’t enough scientists or engineers? The gov needs to spend more money encouraging kids to pursue STEM careers. To make matters worse industry seems to run a boom and bust style recruitment model for engineers at least. When I started engineering school Chem Eng grads were making 50% more than that #2 eng degree (EE or ME depending on the source). By the time I was a junior there weren’t many jobs for Chem Eng grads. The exact same thing happened to EEs around Y2K followed by embedded software (in specific cities). A couple years after that it was MEs turn (due, I think, to oil industry demand). What happens to all those engineers after the bust? And what happens to all the kids considering engineering as a career who witness the boom and bust cycle?

    Until we fix the underlying (and fundamental) problems with actually getting and retaining a STEM career why would anyone wish to encourage young people to pursue such a career? And what fool of a young person would want such a career?

  9. badsciencewikipedia November 1, 2013 / 1:25 am

    Your comment about high school is very important. I used to tutor kids, bright, college-bound high schoolers, and I had a couple of families who allowed girls to move to a lower tier in math than their brothers with the justification that their brothers were interested in engineering. In one case, the parents failed to see that their med school bound daughter needed the math more than her bother who did not pursue a college degree.

    You limit all of your future choices by not aggressively pursuing math, physics, chemistry and biology in high school, and girls are more likely to be discouraged from higher math and physics, giving them a slower start in college. Add the male-friendly academia to that, and it is no wonder the young women move away from math, physics, astronomy, geology.

    Great posts on women in science. Thanks.

  10. Jensen November 15, 2013 / 2:13 pm

    The answer to the question is that women like complaining more than they like science.

  11. Shooter June 15, 2015 / 4:10 am

    So basically, women need to be coddled and things need to be changed to suit them. The idea that universities are biased towards women is no longer valid, especially since:


    For God’s sake. I would have expected more ‘enlightened’ piece, and not one that caters to feminism. In Norway, which is egalitarian, women are pushed to go into STEM. They still choose social sciences over the harder ones.

    Le Gasp. Could it be that women differ than men, biologically? You don’t say!

    Women shouldn’t be coddled. If they want to be in science, let them fight tooth and nail alongside the men. What you’re asking for is a leg-up for women, which isn’t equality. It’s favouritism.

    So why do we prefer papers written by men over women? Perhaps it has to do with men’s way of thinking and their ways of reasoning. All genius IS male, you know. I’m sorry but it is. There’s a thing called IQ.

    ‘Top Gear’ was GEARED towards men. DEAL WITH IT.

    “Universities don’t have programs where women can build families and make a career.” – What? I’m sorry, but this doesn’t happen AT ALL. Not in the West. In fact, women are encouraged to have it ALL – and there are MORE bursaries and scholarships FOR WOMEN than there are for men.

    “Gender bias against women in science doesn’t necessarily take the form of acute incidents of bigotry that we can point to and say “See? Here it is.” Rather, it’s a constant, unrelenting message: “You don’t measure up, you will never be good enough. Stop trying. This is too hard for you.” After years of hearing that, it’s hard not to internalize it.” – So it’s like internalized racism, internalized homophobia, etc etc. This is not an excuse. If women were truly passionate about their work, they would give a middle finger to what others said and would prove their critics wrong. That is real strength. What you’re pushing is coddling.

    How about the men? We tell them: ‘You are sexist to women. Stop threatening them. Give up your jobs for them. Go away. You’re not important anymore.’

    “Most of the women from my cohort, now five years out from graduate school, have either left academia altogether or are trapped in low-paying temporary jobs as adjunct instructors. It’s not because of their incompetence.” – It sounds like it to me. Or was it because of their choices? Let’s be reasonable here. If a company has a place for them, and if THEY deem it necessary, they’ll hire them. If they couldn’t find a job – it is THEIR fault. It has nothing to do with sexism.

    “If you actually do want to improve the participation of women in science, things need to be changed at multiple levels.” – Yes, let’s deny that men and women make any choices and blame it on sexism. It always works.

    You know, you base entire articles on pseudoscience, yet couldn’t be bothered to double-check the claims here. No, I get a paper on sexual harassment done to women by men, because sexism, and of COURSE the paper has to be written by women, no controls added, etc.

    Why aren’t there more women in science? Well it’s not due to sexism. I know what it is: biology. Maybe you can stop those women getting gender studies and social studies and get them over here. Or go to Norway and ask the women who are ENCOURAGED to go into science why they are not.

    Girls are more encouraged in school than boys. Look at Britain. Girls are the majority of the university students there. The boys are dropping out. Sexism? Yes, of course, but not towards women.

    You say numbers matter. They do. Especially if you want to make a factually correct post, and not one riddled in pseudoscience. I am disappointed. Who would have thought a scientist could deny biology?

  12. Shooter June 15, 2015 / 4:11 am

    Points lost for also adding Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not a scientist. He reads a teleprompter and that’s it.

    • Chris June 15, 2015 / 5:42 pm

      Well, aren’t you the most adorable little troll. You are just so cute when you post evidence free assertions on an eighteen month article. Did it take that long to think of that last “zinger”?

      Oh, coochy coo!

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