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Meghan Leach & Debra Lipson/MEDILL

Women scientists in the Chicago area talk about the gender gap in science.

Women in science still given short shrift

by Debra Lipson and Meghan Leach
Dec 04, 2012


Meghan Leach/MEDILL

Geophysicist Suzan van der Lee puts together a seismograph at Northwestern University.



Meghan Leach/MEDILL

Once put together, the seismograph connects to a computer that records the Earth's vibrations.

Scientists agree a gender gap still exists in science careers.

Research supports their view, showing a subtle yet pervasive bias among American science professors evaluating male and female students even though the number of women in science and engineering careers continues to grow.

But socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity widen the gap further.

“Low socioeconomic status disadvantages men and women because they have less opportunities for math and science backgrounds,” said Erin Cech, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Even though opportunities including afterschool camps and workshops are offered to encourage interest in science and math among girls and boys, lower socioeconomic status families can't afford to send their kids to the camps. 

Women scientists interviewed said they don’t find the gender gap surprising.

“Being a woman in science is challenging because a lot of the more senior members of scientific departments are mostly male, a lot of the people you see at conferences are mostly male,” said Maya Gomes, an earth science graduate student at Northwestern University.

At university in the Netherlands, “if I was working with a male friend, we were fine,” said Suzan van der Lee, a geophysicist at Northwestern University. “But if I was working with a female friend, of which there were a few, then we would often be ignored a bit, and sometimes even actively discouraged.  There were some professors that would say, ‘You shouldn’t be here anyway.’”

Gender disparity also can be blatant in experiments. According to Fermilab physicist Deborah Harris, it is typical to have clusters of women on experimental teams – or none at all.

Harris said it is common to see female applicants compared to other women in recommendations, but seldom are they compared to male colleagues. “When I write letters of recommendation, I try not to do that,” she said.

Still, the percent of U.S. women receiving science and engineering degrees is increasing according to the National Science Foundation.

From 1997 – 2006, there was a 45 percent increase in Asian and Pacific Islander women awarded science and engineering Bachelor’s degrees, a 50 percent increase in American Indian and Alaska native women, a 15 percent increase in white, non-Hispanic women and a 58 percent increase for Hispanic women.

The trend is echoed in women receiving science and engineering doctorates as well. Statistics show a 53.5 percent increase in black, non-Hispanic women and a 68 percent increase in Hispanic women awarded science and engineering doctorates whereas white, non-Hispanic women had only a 4 percent increase.  Despite white, non-Hispanic women’s small percent increase, they receive the most science and engineering Bachelor’s degrees and doctorates awarded to women.

Thus, more women are entering the science field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports over half (53.7 percent) of 143,000 medical scientists employed in 2010 were women. Of employed biological scientists, 45.8 percent were also female.

Despite this, a Yale University study released this fall shows gender inequality in the sciences.

Authored by psychologist Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and several colleagues, the study surveyed a nationwide sample of 127 biology, chemistry and physics professors. Professors were both male and female and came from three private and three public universities.

The professors were asked to evaluate a hypothetical applicant for a lab managerial position based on qualifications, competence, salary and the willingness of the professors to mentor the new applicant. Professors all received the same materials for an average candidate who showed promise.

The only variation was that half the professors received an applicant named John; the others evaluated a candidate named Jennifer.

The study found that faculty gender did not affect bias in evaluating applicants. Both male and female faculty judged Jennifer to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than her male counterpart. Jennifer was also offered a smaller starting salary ($26,507 on average) for a lab manager position and less career mentoring than John (offered $30,238 on average).

The research findings show bias even with an increasingly female science workforce.

Gender bias and discrimination can stem from both the workplace and social norms, Cech said.

In terms of human abilities, “individuals think that sex differences are pervasive but they aren’t,” said Sean Horan, a DePaul University communication professor and quantitative researcher. “We simply use sex as an organizing mechanism to explain differences” that have nothing to do with abilities.

But bias takes organizing principles into problematic territory.

“There are lots of processes that happen when we see an outcome of discrimination. Some of those processes are socio-psychological, so you wouldn’t know you’re doing it,” Cech said.

“Essentially, we instantly recognize a person’s gender and categorize them based on it,” said Cech. This subconscious practice occurs in every profession.

Aspects of the science industry may make this bias more likely to happen. Cech cites science’s “sheer under-representation of women,” in some fields and the “default notion of the stereotypical scientist as a white, geeky male.” She added that science exists in a space where “we don’t ask questions about inequalities,” making unconscious bias more likely to happen.

Cultural biases also play a role. “Women who are aggressive are chided either explicitly or by snide comments,” Cech said. “We are constantly policed to fall into proper gender behavior.”

“A woman scientist gets to her post-doc and for the majority of her life has been encouraged to behave in a gendered way,” added Cech. “Now we expect her to behave in a 'masculine' way in this context, then she doesn’t have the experience in participating in this kind of behavior nor does she feel comfortable behaving this way.”

Such broad, social biases are not inherent to men or women but both genders are socialized to behave in a specific way, Cech said.

Scientists agree the gender gap needs to change.

“Certainly, being aware of this bias is the first step,” said Jennifer Raaf, a Fermilab neutrino physicist. “Taking actions to correct existing bias does not solve the problem, it just applies a Band-Aid after the fact.”

The key to getting rid of unconscious bias lies in teaching and talking, Horan said.

“We have to work as a society to challenge sex based expectations and this starts with communication,” he said.

“The most important thing is educating people about how inequality actually works. It’s not that men and women’s brains are hardwired differently or that girls just don’t like science. There are much more systematic processes in place,” Cech said.

To that end, “there has been a bigger push in the last 15 years to do trainings or workshops for hiring committees,” Cech said. Such programs aim to clarify hiring criteria by having frank discussions about the definitions of expertise in a particular field and whether or not those definitions truly represent what it means to be successful in that field.

It does not take a rocket (or biological, physical, zoological) scientist to challenge these principles. Through simple education and outreach, awareness of gender bias spreads.