10/25/2020 0 Comments
By Lauren Koenig
The glass ceiling is well-known for preventing women and minorities from reaching the highest levels of the business world. Women in science face a similar problem: the leaky pipeline. This metaphor is used to describe how women drop out of the sciences at many points along their career path, leading to few women attaining top professional roles.
Fixing the pipeline is a more complex problem than it seems at first glance. The “leaks” are distributed at different stages of a woman’s career and across different disciplines. Nearly half of all biologists today are women, but chemistry (32%) and physics (18%) continue to lag far behind.
How does biology excel where other disciplines fail? Can we use that information to help women pursue their professional goals? Here, we review ongoing challenges, recommendations and our predictions for the state of women in science.
To address the problem of gender inequality in science, we first need to answer, “At what point are women falling behind?”
In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress report found that male students begin to outperform female students in general by 4th grade. This margin continues to widen throughout high school. However, females had higher science GPAs and took more advanced coursework than males. And their involvement in science continues throughout secondary education. In recent years, females have earned more bachelor's, master’s and doctorate degrees in science than males.
These results make it apparent that efforts to retain girls’ interest in science is fairly successful when their interest is encouraged at an early age. What then causes postgraduate women to turn away from science?
Workforce and the Pay Gap
There are several interconnected factors at play at this point in the pipeline: salary, promotion and discrimination.
First, male scientists earn an average salary of $76,279 compared to females’ average salary of $59,242. Second, women are promoted less frequently than men. While women and men hold an equal number of entry-level academic positions, there are twice as many male senior professors. This lack of promotion helps to explain the huge pay gap. Men are not necessarily making more money doing the same job (although that does happen), but they have a higher median salary because they are promoted to higher paying jobs.
Another reason to explain why women are leaving is a poor work environment and harassment. Half of women working in STEM fields say they have experienced some form of discrimination and leave because they feel isolated and lack “belongingness.” Harassment may also explain the low levels of promotion. If women leave these jobs due to the workplace atmosphere, they never have the opportunity to be promoted in the first place.
Fixing the problem of underrepresentation of women in science is not only the responsibility of the people at the top of the career ladder. These structural faults in the pipeline are due to underlying stereotypes and historical bias against women that are culturally widespread.
Biased beliefs about women’s innate ability to succeed in science remain pervasive - even among scientists themselves. Researchers interviewed over 2500 scientists and found that male scientists cited brain differences, natural ability, historical discrimination and gender segregation in early education as the main factors leading to more women pursuing biology over physics.
Women scientists were less likely to believe that there were any innate differences in female scientists’ ability to succeed. They suggested instead that women pursue biology due to ongoing discrimination in other STEM fields. They also expressed that women may have a stronger drive to conduct work that directly benefits society, and biology and medical research are perceived as having broader applications for the public. In comparison, physics and math are perceived as having a greater focus on advancing theory.
This association overlaps with the idea that women, more than men, should take on a caregiving role and conduct work that helps others. The caregiver stereotype also forces women to choose more often than men between time-intensive careers and having a family. The responsibilities of child and elder care have historically been ascribed to women. The outcome of this role is that women are discouraged from entering science at several points in the early stages of their career, which frequently coincides with decisions related to building and maintaining a family. As a result of the wage gap, if the choice is between a man and a woman giving up a job to become a caregiver, women are more likely than men to stay at home with the children since it results in less loss of income. These disparities have been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in academia.
Divorce settlements will also often result in the mother having primary custody of the children - a factor that can lead to her choosing a job in a more family-friendly field with consistent hours and less travel. Women in science who do have families reported feelings of isolation because they cannot take part in informal events outside of regular work hours. This can have real consequences for their career productivity since it prevents opportunities for networking and collaboration.
The effects of these lingering stereotypes contrast with progressive views supposedly held today. How then do we retrain our brains to normalize gender equality across all scientific disciplines?
One of the most promising solutions has been the rise of media attention given to female scientists in popular movies like Hidden Figures and TV shows like Bones.
Successful women in science, both real and fictional, can function as role models to encourage incoming women scientists to feel more confident in pursuing their career. A lack of role models in early and undergraduate physics and chemistry education was identified as a main issue contributing to women pursuing biology instead, where women are typically more visible and accepted.
Opportunities to find and connect with role models have also been increasing as a result of a growing number of networking opportunities and organizations directed towards women. More women are able to forge connections and a sense of belongingness by joining pre-professional college campus groups, online mentoring sites and engaging in volunteer opportunities that bring together older students and researchers to teach hands-on science in local classrooms.
However, significant care and awareness will be required to end the self-fulfilling phenomena in which a lack of role models results in low recruitment of young women who would then serve as role models themselves.
While the current numbers of women in some scientific fields remain low, increasing their visibility, amplifying their voices and giving them credit for their ideas will help attract more women to the workforce. Within graduate school, which relies heavily on a mentorship system, third party moderators in the department can review whether advisers give preference to male students, especially if there is greater standardization of expectations regarding how often mentors meet with their mentees. At the professional level, scientists can support women through attendance at conferences that host diverse panels and speakers, thereby helping to rid academia of the scourge of “manels.”
This growing awareness of the gender bias in science is only the start. More work is needed to determine whether submitting job applications anonymously will erase the subtle gender bias implicit within a female name. Ongoing research continues to promote the universal benefits of more generous parental leave for both spouses, but many of these ideas are still confined to paper. As more policies aimed at improving diversity and inclusiveness allow for greater achievements to be made by women in the sciences, the work involved in restructuring this system should be viewed as clearly worth the effort.
Embracing Non-linear Careers
Rather than continuing to invest in patching leaks in the pipeline, a more diverse STEM community would gain from placing that investment in overhauling its underlying structure. Careers in the sciences are incredibly susceptible to change and there is no denying that today’s job opportunities have become much more interdisciplinary. Science degrees are being recruited by banks, tech companies, healthcare, communication and nearly every type of business, with value being placed in employees’ analytical skill sets.
The end of the pipeline, a job in academia or scientific industry, is also very specialized and not for everyone. Denoting it as the only possible finish line falsely punishes an infinite number of rewarding opportunities made possible by melding science, creativity, and innovation.
As long as the opportunity to stay or leave is not influenced by gender biases, those who “leak” from the pipeline will greatly benefit from transferable skills. In academia and high school levels, it is very possible to emphasize tools in statistics, data management or public policy through coursework or seminars, and traditional programs would boost their PR by normalizing non-traditional routes that combine STEM pathways with more creative fields. Embracing all of the vocations that branch out from science and its broader network of people can only improve the application and atmosphere of STEM fields as a whole.
Laura Daniel contributed reporting to this article. Data for informational graphics was compiled from National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.
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