The Why Files The Why Files --

Women in science: What are the obstacles?

Adding it up
When you look at the documented progress that women have made in math, you could say that simply staying the course might solve the problem. But to achieve true equality -- to get the full intellectual contributions of all citizens, regardless of gender -- we'd be smart to take advantage of new knowledge of how discrimination works.

Bias does not seem to be something men do against women, says plant pathologist Jo Handelsman, who is co-director of an institute devoted to advancing women in science, but rather the outgrowth of a subtle, non-rational discrimination against women by both sexes.Graph shows higher percentage of tenured men than women  over time. "One thing I find particularly interesting, in none of the studies, is there a statistically significant difference among the raters," she says. "What that says is that men and women apply the same bias to men and women," so simply putting more women on search committees won't ensure equal treatment for women in university hiring.

Tenure, at a university, means your job is secure. It's the sign of ultimate approval from your colleagues, and it's something that men still enjoy at greater percentages than women.
Data: American Association of University Professors.

While women have garnered an increasing percentage of science PhDs over the past 25 years or so, Handelsman adds, "There is a falloff in almost every field between the Ph.D and faculty level." Why? "They are less encouraged to go on to faculty, have a lot of question about combining being on the faculty with a family, and women are often not comfortable talking about these concerns when in graduate school. There are realities about combining families with academic life, and a lot of universities haven't done everything they could to accommodate those parts of life."

A nefarious plot? Not.
Discrimination is not, Handelsman says, the result of "a nefarious male plot to keep women out of the academy. It's the way we are acculturated to think certain things about women."

Discrimination against women is not the result of a nefarious male plot to keep women out.That internalized view of women's competence plays a role in university retention, says Vicki Bier, professor of industrial engineering at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "At the undergrad level, women [in science] drop out more than men, and drop out with typically higher grades. A man who gets a C is likely to think, 'A C is perfectly fine, but I probably deserved a higher grade.' A woman who gets a B and is used to getting A's ... will think, 'Maybe I'm not really good, I'm working so hard, maybe it's not the right thing for me.' Part of it is the stereotype in her own mind that leads her to question herself."

Those subtle problems can add up over time, Bier says. " I think women are more likely to encounter those discouragements than men. The differences are small and hard to measure, but if you are slightly more likely not to get your paper or proposal accepted on the first go-round, or get the good teaching assignments, any individual inequity may seem small, but they do accumulate over time, and play into self-perception that maybe it's not the right thing to be doing."

Virginia Valian, who heads the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College, agrees that small problems do add up. Via email, she told us, "Males and females alike tend to overrate men and underrate women, because of gender schemas [pigeonholes we use for stereotyping]. Many of the occasions on which evaluation occurs are minor -- such as not attending to a woman's comments in a meeting -- and are therefore brushed over as unimportant. That's where the notion of the accumulation of advantage comes in: Mountains *are* molehills, piled one on top of the other. Success comes from parlaying smaller gains into bigger gains. If you don't get the smaller gains that your performance merits, if you don't get credit for your ideas, it will take you longer to obtain larger gains."

Woman at lab bench holds pipette in gloved hands.The politically charged debate about innate differences in ability will continue, but in the meantime, there are ways to assure equality, especially in those scientific fields where women remain disadvantaged. Mentoring projects, straightforward talks about discrimination, and evaluating candidates without knowing their gender -- or race -- are already helping to improve equity.

Caitilyn Allen isolates plant pathogenic bacteria from a geranium plant to investigate the molecular basis of plant disease. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"If we are trying to solve this problem ... we should look first at the tractable problems, at the things we can solve," says Caitilyn Allen of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Already, she says, changes in law, and programs established in past decades to advance women in science, math and engineering "have changed social attitudes, have had a profound and very positive effect on the representation of women in math, science, engineering."

Want to meet a few notable but overlooked women scientists?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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