There is no gender discrimination in science

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)


24 thoughts on “There is no gender discrimination in science

  1. Yes women drop out of science to have families. I have considered doing that many many times. I wonder why Mr.SM has never considered quitting his job to have a family? Why almost 2 years ago, I did I think ” its fucking hard enough to be a mom and working, without having to be a mom going to work in lab where I’m made to feel like shit for being a mom”. Since the lab I was in wasn’t my first experience in science, I can totally see why a large proportion of women “choose” to leave. Its not that hard of a choice when you’re facing crap all day long. I’m ranting here, but the whole women choose to have families pissed the fucking crap out of me. Why do I have to choose to have a family? My husband never had to make that fucking choice. Yes women do make a smaller percentage of professors, but if all was right equal in the world, the same percentage would be represented at all levels. I look forward to the day when I no longer have to “choose” between the my various identities.

  2. A recent prospective postdoc visited our lab and she and I were talking about gender issues in science. She mentioned that Dr XY Hotshot at her institute had asserted to her that there was no more discrimination against women in science. I looked at her for a moment and then we both rolled our eyes in unison. Yeah, glad that Dr XYH is so sure of himself….

  3. This is an excellent post.

    I’m hearing the “because women become mothers” argument a lot these days to explain all sorts of lingering gender inequalities in the workplace. (I am not in academia- I work in biotech, and actually have not recently experienced any gender discrimination first hand, even since having two children. But I know that this is just MY experience and not a universal.)

    Anyway, that argument really, really makes me angry. Women don’t have families- couples do. Where are the fathers in that argument? If something is causing mothers to experience career issues and not causing similar career issues for fathers, then somewhere, something is unequal. And that inequality is SEXISM, plain and simple. Because I’m sorry, the actual biological differences aren’t as big as people make them out to be. Yeah, I carried the babies and I make the milk, and those things can’t be changed. However, there is no biological law that I have to be the one who stays home with a sick kid or juggles her schedule to go to the special event at day care- so in my family, those things are shared.

    I’ll know we’ve reached a new milestone in gender equality the first time someone asks my husband how he balances work and fatherhood. He has never been asked that. Not once. I am asked how I balance work and motherhood ALL THE TIME.

  4. I’ve always wondered why people compare current percentages in full professorships vs graduating students. Shouldn’t the comparison be with the male-female ratio that graduated N to M years ago, where N = (years in grad school + postdoc + asst prof + assoc prof), and M = N + (years to retirement)? If you’re looking at females who get a BS in science this year, you need to look 20+ years in the future to see how many of them made it to full prof.

  5. @Donnie Berkholz- that has been done, and the gender inequity remains.

    In fact, quoting from the post:

    “…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%.”

    Look back in the post. 20 years ago (in 1991), women were 45% of the bio grad students. This cohort should be professors by now.

  6. Ummmm Donnie-

    First- I wasn’t sayin’ that because the numbers in grad school are equal today, we should have an equal # of full professors today. I very clearly wrote that the numbers in grad school have been nearly equal since the early 90s…. or about 20 years… so your point was…?

    Second- if you read carefully what I wrote (and what is in the report itself)

    ‘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?).’

    That’s women faculty with tenure, NOT women faculty that are full professors. Tenure in most institutions is granted at the promotion to associate professor, which happens significantly earlier than promotion to full professor (usually)- so that cuts years off your calculation up there.

  7. First, I want to be clear that I agree with you — I believe there is a leaky pipeline, I just think the wrong comparisons are being made.

    I agree that 20 years is hitting the low end of full profs. The problem is that you’re comparing to an average across all profs, even those who finished grad school before WWII. The same holds true for tenure — averaging across all people with tenure isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, although looking at one year’s worth of newly tenured profs vs that year’s graduates from 20 years ago would be. I haven’t read the report so I don’t know whether they are doing what I think is the right thing.

  8. I am a female scientist early in my tenure-track career. I have never ever felt discriminated for being a woman. I was never discriminated in my home country either, but I left way before entering the job market. My girlfriends and I have been raised with the idea that we should think of our career first, and then about the rest, which will come along (husband, family). Here, many of the American born-and-raised girls I meet are raised with the opposite ideas: husband and kids first, then the job. My country has the lowest birthrate in the westernized world, and most of my girlfriends are not married (either single or with a stable partner) and do not have kids. In spite of this, many of them are asked at job interviews if they plan to get married and have kids. Thus, in my country a woman in her 30s is openly discriminated, by asking questions that are illegal in the US. Certainly my view on discrimination of women in the US in biased because of the situation in my home country. This does not mean that here it should not be improved further. Nonetheless, major milestones against discrimination have been reached here more than anywhere else (with the exception of Scandinavian countries).
    In my institution I have several models of female professors who have been very successful or that are junior faculty like me. My chair is a woman, my vice chair is a woman; my dearest colleagues here are women, in many fields from biology, to computer science to physics. About equal in number Americans and foreigners. Now, are we all exceptions? All of us, foreign female professors that are able to make it in this country are exceptions?
    Many US female graduate students here tell us that they do not want to be faculty: it means long hours, problems with funding, everything you know. Their priority in life is to have a husband and kids. I can only tell them that they can do both, like drdrA. But who am I to change their priorities and goals? My own mother chose a less time consuming career because she wanted to be a mother first, and she is proud to tell you that her kids did not spend a single day in daycare. She had the opportunity to pursue a demanding career, but she declined because she wanted a family and she wanted to be with us. Truth is, pursuing a faculty career means that a woman will spend very little time with her kids, compared to mothers that have a regular job. This career has to be attractive enough to leave you own kids in daycare the whole day and give up most of your free time and weekends, and I understand this is not for everyone.

  9. @ForeignFemaleProfessor- all the stats I’ve seen imply that profs work about 55 hours/week, on average. I don’t think that is inconsistent with having kids and seeing them. I also don’t think it is that far out of line with what the average is in other professions- but I don’t have any data on that.

    As a mother who is a scientist (albeit one who has chosen to work in industry and work in a job that is not 100% science), I would tell your students that the reality of combining motherhood with a career in science is nowhere near as bad as I was led to believe it would be. I remember being scared by it when I was in grad school. Now, I think that it is not so scary. It is hard, but frankly, motherhood is hard no matter how you do it. Some women may decide that the combination doesn’t work for them, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. I know some very happy scientists who are mothers. I am personally very happy with my life and my career.

    Anyway, I hate to see young women self-selecting themselves out of careers based on this idea that you can’t be a scientist and a mother. This perception bothered me so much that I started a list on a blog post listing scientists who are mothers. It is far from complete, but DrDrA is also far from the only example. For instance, all three female scientist Nobel prize winners last year are mothers.

    Here is my list:

    I’ll happily add to it if you leave a comment or send an email with suggestions.

  10. Today’s nooz from the Chronicle about Canada’s research chairs. 19 went to men. ZERO for women. Definitely no preferences for the menz happening.. nope, not at all. What discrimination against women? There are no women! How can they discriminate against women when there are none?

    Donnie d00d, the pipeline isn’t passively leaking. WOMEN ARE BEING FORCED OUT BECAUSE MEN PREFER HIRING MEN. PLAIN AND SIMPLE! Mansplain your maths somewhere else (yannow, since you “haven’t read the report”). When men see women get into the 20-30% range of a faculty/study section/working group, that’s arms-length reach enough for them. Anything above 30% uterus-bearers scares those boys that the wimmins might take the joint over, OMG estrogen attack! Now go do your homework and hey, maybe you’ll tell us something we never heard or don’t know from being in the phucking trenches of discrimination day in, day out.

    /rant+shoe puke

  11. Nice post.

    And here’s just another one of those niggling little inequalities that exist: At out university, they have just announced that staff can win a University Medal for their outstanding achievements in research, and there are two other medals as well for other things eg Emerging Researcher. Awesome!

    Oh, but I forgot to mention, only university staff who work fulltime are eligible. That cuts out my female mentor straight away, who is excellent but ONLY works 0.8. I guess she can’t be that great a scientist then.

  12. I was a lucky one that “believed” gender discrimination was real, but I never saw it. I use the past tense, because I recently got to witness a gathering of my older, male colleagues and found out that they were more biased than I would have ever guessed. WTF?

  13. There may not be any gender discrimination in the engineering fields and the sciences but there sure as hell is “mom” discrimination. I earn less than my younger less experienced co-workers because it is assumed that I am only working here (not a professor) because my mom role takes priority over my science role. This may be true about two weeks out of the year when my husband travels for his job. The rest of the time he is the one who takes care of the sick child because his job has greater flexibility than my lab job. My boss is a childless man whose wife takes great care of him and his household so he assumes that all the rest of us prioritze our lives in the same manner. The best thing that we moms can do to ensure that the cycle does not continue is to raise our sons to be responsible adults like my mother-in-law did.

  14. Just came across this, very interesting. I’m starting up my own blog and was planning a post about being a young woman in science. If I get around to it, I hope you don’t mind if I link to yours as well!

  15. I find that discrimination gets more noticeable the higher one goes up the food chain. Some unfortunates experience sexism/racism/etc right off the bat as students. Many don’t notice anything direct until later on in their careers, when they have the experience and the network to notice patterns of behavior, and then to see how those patterns play out in their own lives.

  16. If you’re saying that there’s current discrimination against women, why bring up the percentage of women laureates since 1901? What is the significance of the percentage of women laureates at all? It seems to me to be a totally arbitrary measurement, unless you’re complaining about discrimination the part of the Nobel committee which might have undergone changes over the years since 1901, and which seems to be a rather small fraction of the science universe. And even then you can’t go very far just from disparities. To argue that discrimination is a problem based on arbitrarily selected statistics is weak and even a non sequitur.

    Are there areas of science where women get preferential treatment because they are women? Might not Harvard have overreacted in its response to Nancy Hopkins’s reaction to Larry Summers’s comment? It seems to me that one could answer yes to both questions.

  17. [Just when I think I’ve got my mansplainin’ skillz down, some cat comes along and makes me look like a rank amateur.]

    Inre “academia’s is real hard” canard, Cloud is correct to dismiss it. Certainly, all working adults like to imagine that their career is particularly grueling, but in reality academia is one of the more flexible careers you can pursue; it’s not necessarily easy on the hours, but relatively, it sure as hell isn’t killer either. It’s certainly more family friendly that medicine, and the fraction of physicians that are women is climbing at a considerable rate, implying that the dismissive, “Girls jus’ wanna have babies”, hypothesis to the attrition rate problem in academia is a load of old horseshit. Particularly given that female physicians still manage to balance families with a $50+ hour work week (where the hours are often spattered across the 24hr clock and the entire 7-day week throughout the year).

    Academia should be an ideal place for women with families, imho. And yet, the fact that the fraction of female profs is even less than the fraction of female lawyers (a profession with arguably the most notorious rep for gender discrimination in the professional workplace outside of politics) just goes to show that something is not quite right.

  18. Recently I got to witness firsthand a couple of stunning examples of sexism in science. A very intelligent MD/Ph.D. postdoc in my lab was interviewing postdoc candidates for the new faculty job he was going to be starting in a few months. He came up to me and the other two female grad students in my lab and said, “You know, I won’t let it affect my decision, but it occurs to me that most of the people I’ve been interviewing for my lab are women. I’d be so totally screwed if I hired mostly women and any of them had to take maternity leave. But of course that won’t factor into things!” Oh, of course not! Even if I take him at his word and believe that he wouldn’t discriminate against women consciously or unconsciously, the other male postdoc in my lab jumped in to say that when he was starting his own lab (which he is now, very soon), he would try not to hire female postdocs for that very reason. I threatened to contact the places he was interviewing and tell them he was planning to practice gender discrimination, at which point he backtracked. Incidentally, both of them just had their first children this year (daughters), and they both definitely put in less time at the lab since having their kids.

    More anecdotal evidence, but of the postdocs in my lab’s neighborhood who left bench science, all three were women, and they didn’t leave to have babies. I just got my Ph.D. and I’m getting far, far away from academia.

  19. ““You know, I won’t let it affect my decision, but it occurs to me that most of the people I’ve been interviewing for my lab are women. I’d be so totally screwed if I hired mostly women and any of them had to take maternity leave. But of course that won’t factor into things!”

    Good God, what a shame*. He’s clearly never worked around pregnant women. If he had, he’d know that pregnant women don’t simply tend towards being highly productive themselves, but their proximity tends to make people around them more productive. I’ve seen it too many times to dismiss it as coincidence, and besides it would seem to have a certain amount of evolutionary sense to it. (Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of ego that serves to stimulate her peers, who are nervous of appearing to be outperformed by their supposedly “incapacitated” colleague?)

    Given the paltry maternity leave expected in the US, the pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to making sure that somebody is expecting in the lab. If these sorts of fellows could be accused of at least being imaginative chauvinists, they would see that there’s scope for profitable exploitation here, inre annual productivity.

    * That you didn’t hit him, of course.

  20. Bah. I just finished a survey of salaries of my peers at state schools (where salaries are published), and let me tell you, gender discrimination is alive and well. Or maybe women are just less competent, less hardworking, and less deserving of a decent paycheck than their male peers. Double bah.

  21. DrDrA, I think your womb has wandered around, jumped up into your throat, and is strangling you, causing hysteria. I can’t think of any other reason why you would post something like this when it is so obviously clear that there is no, I repeat no, gender discrimination in science. No, clearly you are suffering from wandering womb syndrome, which is what happens when wimminz get themselves too eduimacated.

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