I’m dusting off the ole blog after a rather lengthy absence, because I must. (YES, I JUST FIXED A TYPO)
I’ve been traveling a lot lately. In my travels have had the opportunity to talk to many of my female colleagues about various topics, including the state of women in science. Some of these conversations have been somewhat disturbing to me. See, from time to time I hear the refrain that there is NO discrimination against women in science anymore, and that conclusion has been reached by women scientists who feel that they themselves haven’t yet encountered any overt discrimination. This flavor of conversation usually goes further- from male and female colleagues alike- to conclude that women are under-represented at the upper echelons of science because they: 1. dropped out to have children or 2. didn’t want to work hard- or weren’t equally motivated with the men who made it up to that rarefied atmosphere of full professorship, national academy membership or whatever.
I have to confess that this conversation REALLY bothers me. Why? Because I can identify with it to some level- I’m one of those good girls who feels like she’s had every advantage. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a dad who encouraged me to be whatever I wanted, an otherwise supportive family that strongly believed in the value of education, enough $$ (usually), mentors that were unusually gifted and who I always felt supported me 100%, and colleagues in my institution and elsewhere that I know are pulling for me. So if I just looked at ‘women in science’ from my own vantage point- I could come to the conclusion that because my own experience has been relatively smooth thus far- THERE MUST BE NO DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN IN SCIENCE.
But all of my career I’ve been trained to discern anecdotal evidence from real, controlled, statistically significant data. One experience does not a data set make, we all know that. I recently read this beautiful article by Georgina Ferry in Nature about the Nobel Prize Winning Crystalographer Dorothy Hodgkin (The making of an exceptional scientist (Georgina Ferry) (29 April 2010, Nature 464, 1268–1270 DOI: doi:10.1038/4641268a),- and I’ll just quote:
By tradition, the students of Stockholm sing to welcome the prizewinners before the Nobel ball, and one of the laureates responds. Hodgkin said: “I was chosen to reply to the students here this evening as the one woman of our group, a position which I hope very much will not be so very uncommon in future that it will call for any comment or distinction of this kind.” Since she expressed that hope, and despite the intervening revolution in women’s rights and expectations, only ten further women have won science Nobels. In total, women make up 2.8% of the 537 laureates in science since 1901, and 1.5% of those in physics or chemistry. (emphasis is mine)
Hmmmm. That data hit me squarely in the face. 2.8% is pretty freaking low.
And this morning Isis has a beautiful post up on the History of how women came to serve on study section…. that has an instructive chart about the representation of women in the National Academy of Science. And there is some data in there… although the number of women in the lower ranks is creeping up…. we have not really made substantial gains in election to the National Academy.
And now I know I’m going to hear from somewhere that women make up a small proportion of scientists and thus OF COURSE their representation at the top is low. But I’m just going to cut that argument off at the knees. In 2001, 55.9% of bachelor’s degrees in the sciences were awarded to women (Table 2-3, To Recruit and Advance), and that number was nearly 60% for biological and agricultural sciences in 2007 (AAUP Why so few?). Even better, in 1991 the 45% of the graduate students in the biological sciences were women- and this crept up to be just over 50% in 2001 (Figure 2-2, To Recruit and Advance) and was maintained as 47.9% of doctorates in the biological and agricultural sciences were awarded to women in 2006 (AAUP, Why so few?). This is the last 20 YEARS people.
But, … in 2003 women continued to be under represented at the top of the academic ladder- holding 21% of full professor positions in biology (the numbers at the assistant level are 38.8%, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty). Numbers from 2006 bear this out as well- at 4 year institutions women made up 41% of the faculty in un-tenured positions in biological/agricultural/environmental/and life sciences- but were only 22% of the tenured faculty in the same fields (AAUP Why so few?). Although we have made some gains- no denying that- it is pretty sad that for the last 20 years women have been trained in equal numbers to men, but the numbers that reach full professor are STILL only in the low end of 20%.
I know I’m going on with numbers and more numbers, so after all that laboring here’s my point. We all have our own experience- but the data don’t lie. No matter how rainbow and unicorn your own private academic science experience with an N=1 is, take a look around at the actual data. There IS a gender disparity in academic science. Is this because women have families? I don’t know. Is this because women are somehow less motivated than men with the equivalent degree? I don’t know. But I think we should be asking ourselves two questions. First, WHY is there an obvious gender disparity in the rise up the academic ladder – and even if your answers are because women have families or are less motivated THAN MEN there should be a WHY for that as well. I’m not satisfied with those simple ‘personal experience’ type answers- for one thing men have families as well- and that hasn’t hurt them any in the numbers being promoted to full professor, getting Nobel and Lasker Prizes, and being elected to the National Academy. And second- WHAT can we do to fix it. There are some simple lessons for this in Dorothy Hodgkin’s story.
(And while you are at this read Feminist Chemist’s take on why this is all even worth bothering with in the first place)