Gender equality in academic science

Ella Rhodes reports.

A new report by an interdisciplinary team has aimed to identify why women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths fields (STEM). Their analyses showed that, despite many differences between the sexes prior to university (reflected in occupational preferences, maths ability and cultural attitudes), the playing field eventually levels for women who continue in these fields once they earn their PhD. However, in life sciences, including psychology, women are more likely to drop out of the pipeline.

In the report, psychologists Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams (Cornell University) and economists Donna K. Ginther (University of Kansas) and Shulamit Kahn (Boston University) looked at data collected since 2000 from various scientific disciplines. Their findings paint a complex portrait of women in science, as Professor Ceci pointed out. He said: ‘No single cause or single sweeping statement accurately captures why women are found in short supply in some fields. Rather, the causes are complex and involve multiple factors that operate at different stages of the life course.’

The full report and an accompanying commentary by Diane Halpern (Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute) were published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the report showed that women were underrepresented in university courses, postgraduate programmes, and professional fields that are the most mathematically intensive, such as geoscience, engineering and economics, mathematics/computer science, and the physical sciences (GEEMP). In 2011 women received only 25 per cent of GEEMP bachelor’s degrees, and women make up only 25 to 44 per cent of tenure-track assistant professors in GEEMP fields.

The researchers found that the roots of these disparities have early origins. Gender differences in attitudes toward and expectations about maths careers and ability seem to emerge as early as kindergarten and increase thereafter, leading girls to be less likely to major in maths-intensive subjects in college. And these disparities continue on through graduate-level education. For those women who do receive a PhD in a maths-intensive science, however, the playing field actually seems to level. Women are as likely as (or more likely than) men to be invited to interview for a tenure-track job or to be offered such a job. Women and men receive comparable salaries and show similar rates of promotion, journal acceptance and grant funding. They also show similar levels of persistence and hours worked, and express similar levels of career satisfaction.

There are some exceptions to these trends, but they are exceptions, not the norm, said Ceci: ‘The data show that the biases and barriers that resulted in attrition of women from academic science in the past have largely been surmounted, and the causes of modern underrepresentation have changed. By focusing on historical biases we risk misdirecting resources away from the current causes of women’s underrepresentation.’

Paradoxically, the data suggest that women are more likely to leave scientific fields in which they are already well-represented, such as life sciences, psychology, and social sciences (LPS). Women in maths-intensive fields move from undergraduate to graduate school to tenure-track professorships at rates comparable to men. In contrast, in LPS fields they tend to drop out of the pipeline more often.

According to Halpern, one of the most important features of the report is that it separates maths-intensive fields from non-maths-intensive fields in which women are overrepresented. She said: ‘This distinction should change the nature of future research. We can no longer talk about gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as though they are homogeneous across disciplines.’ It is suggested that increasing women’s representation in academic science not only requires a shift in emphasis toward GEEMP fields in particular, but also a shift away from alleged bias in academia, toward interventions that are targeted early in the lives of girls and women. The authors suggest such interventions could include programmes, beginning as early as elementary school, designed to encourage girls to engage with GEEMP fields. And later, interventions should focus on fostering work–life balance for PhD students who are at greater risk of opting out of tenure-track positions.

‘Our hope is that this research synthesis… will help to redirect the debate toward critical issues that are most important in limiting the careers of women scientists today, and hopefully move closer to solving them,’ Ceci and his co-authors wrote.

Not all were convinced by the report. Virginia Valian, Distinguished Professor in Psychology at Hunter College, CUNY, told us: ‘It ignores: the wealth of experimental data showing that both men and women underrate women and overrate men in professional settings, including academic science; the subtle daily examples in real life where women’s professional contributions are unrecognised – including the failure to invite them as keynote speakers at conferences; and data showing that female (and male) students are sensitive to cues indicating whether they will be welcomed in a field. They properly note that there’s no single cause for the underrepresentation of women in science. But by concentrating on women’s “choices” they ignore the conditions that give rise to those choices, mischaracterising the problem and where to look for solutions. We need to engage all students in science, math, and engineering. When efforts are made to include more girls and women, those efforts also engage boys and men.’ er

The report and commentary are available at For more on women in science and psychology, see p.918.

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