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?
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.