Gender equality in science: a better future for everyone

Late last year, a metastudy was published showing that, since 2000, things are improving for women working in most STEM-based fields — although there are some notable exceptions

by GrrlScientist for The Guardian | @GrrlScientist

Geneticist Barbara McClintock giving her Nobel Lecture at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm during the week of the Nobel Prize ceremony. Public domain.

The scarcity of women in the ranks of working scientists has been in the news for a discouragingly long time. But research studies designed to explain the reasons for this gender disparity are filled contradictions, mainly because they were conducted at different times and on different science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Last year the Association for Psychological Research published a monograph about women in STEM fields in their journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In this open-access metastudy, a cross-disciplinary team of scientists and economists focused specifically on published studies and data collected across all scientific fields to investigate how women are faring in STEM fields (doi:10.1177/1529100614541236). After extensive analyses and comparisons of the life and career trajectories of women and men in maths-intensive STEM fields (geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics/computer science, and the physical sciences, including chemistry and physics) versus those of their counterparts in non-maths-intensive STEM fields (life sciences, psychology and social sciences), the authors concluded that things have been improving recently for women in most STEM fields. Further, although women are still not equally represented in some academic STEM departments, institutional gender bias may no longer be the primary reason. Thus, the authors argue, claims made based on data collected prior to 2000 are probably no longer directly applicable today because women have made enormous gains in the past two decades.

“The Academy used to be sexist, without doubt, and women’s careers were limited by many factors”, said the study’s co-author, psychologist Wendy Williams, Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science.

Nobel prize winning biochemist, Gerty Cori, with her husband and fellow-Nobelist, Carl Ferdinand Cori, in 1947. Women in the life sciences still are experiencing gender bias, according to a recent study. (Credit: Smithsonian Institution from United States/No restrictions.)

The study did uncover important differences between maths-intensive and non-maths-intensive fields. For example, the life sciences in particular are still experiencing gender biases: female junior faculty in the life sciences are still paid less than men, and they still have more trouble gaining tenure. Further, women are still less likely to even apply for assistant professorships in life science fields, although they are more likely than men to be hired when they do apply.

“You cannot treat all science fields as the same”, said the study’s co-author Donna Ginther, a Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for Science Technology & Economic Policy at the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas.

“Each is a separate market and women’s progress — or lack of progress — depends upon the field.”

Early photo of ‘Pickering’s Harem’, as the group of women computers assembled by Harvard astronomer Edward Charles Pickering was dubbed. The group included Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming and Antonia Maury. (Credit: Harvard College Observatory/Public Domain.)

In contrast to the situation for women in the life sciences, maths-intensive STEM fields are experiencing a different problem: fewer women choose to pursue a career in these areas to begin with. But this is changing: the authors pointed out, for example, that some STEM fields that lacked female faculty in 1970 now employ 20–40 percent women.

“As more and more women are becoming successful academics in these fields, we expect this to change naturally because more girls will be taught by women”, said economist and study co-author, Shulamit Kahn, an assistant professor in Boston University’s School of Management.

“But”, added Professor Kahn, “policy interventions could speed this process.”

Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, was the first woman to ever win the Fields Medal, widely regarded as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” since it was established in 1936. But she is more than a professor; she’s a role model to her students. Photograph courtesy of Maryam Mirzakhani/Stanford University.

Although the previous study indicates that the STEM fields are moving in the right direction, we must still refine how to promote gender equality. Another study, published just a few weeks ago by a different group in Cell Stem Cell, identified seven policy interventions that could promote and safeguard gender equality in science, engineering and medicine (doi:10.1016/j.stem.2015.02.012). These recommendations are designed specifically to overcome political, administrative, financial, and cultural challenges and to speed the process of gender equality in STEM fields. These policy interventions include:

  1. Implement flexible family care spending: Make grants gender neutral by permitting grantees to use a certain percentage of grant award funds to pay for childcare, eldercare, or family-related expenses. This provides more freedom for grantees to focus on professional development and participate in the scientific community.
  2. Provide “extra hands” awards: Dedicate funds for newly independent young investigators who are also primary caregivers to hire technicians, administrative assistants, or postdoctoral fellows.
  3. Recruit gender-balanced review and speaker selection committees: Adopt policies that ensure that peer review committees are conscious of gender and are made up of a sufficient number of women.
  4. Incorporate implicit bias statements: For any initiative that undergoes external peer review, include a statement that describes the concept of implicit bias to reviewers and reiterates the organisation’s commitment to equality and diversity.
  5. Focus on education as a tool: Academic institutions and grant makers must educate their constituents and grantees on the issues women face in science and medicine. For example, gender awareness training should be a standard component of orientation programs.
  6. Create an institutional report card for gender equality: Define quantifiable criteria that can be used to evaluate gender equality in institutions on an annual basis. For instance, these report cards may ask for updates about the male to female ratio of an academic department or the organisation’s policy regarding female representation on academic or corporate committees.
  7. Partner to expand upon existing searchable databases of women in science, medicine, and engineering: Create or contribute to databases that identify women scientists for positions and activities that are critical components for career advancement.

“The issues in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are the kinds of challenges that we as a society face, and we need to have 100 percent of the population — both genders — to be having an opportunity to participate,” said healthcare advocate and co-author of the Cell Stem Cell study, Susan Solomon, in a press release. Ms Solomon is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of The New York Stem Cell Foundation in New York City.

“We need people who care because they’re thinking about their daughters or granddaughters or nieces, sisters or wives”, said Ms Solomon. Or because they are thinking about larger issues “like finding cures for disease or climate change and they want to make sure that we’ve got enough horsepower behind us.”

The CMS Girls Engineering Camp at Texas A&M University–Commerce in June 2015. (CC BY 2.0.)

As already mentioned, women’s gains have been slower in maths-intensive fields. The authors of the Psychological Science in the Public Interest study are “strongly convinced” this is due to the poorer maths education received by most girls. They argue that parents and teachers can exert a profound influence over girls’ future career choices and success in STEM fields by urging them to enrol in maths courses as soon as they are available, and by encouraging girls to continue studying maths throughout their educational career.

“It really comes down to math early on, in high school and middle school — girls are not taking math courses, so they don’t have the mathematic tools when they get to college to really pursue these math-intensive majors”, said Professor Ginther. She pointed out that getting a solid mathematical education is important because “math-intensive degrees actually pay more than the degrees in life sciences, psychology and social sciences and so by avoiding mathematics and pursuing non-math fields, women’s economic returns to those degrees are lower.”

“The key is early intervention”, said Professor Ginther.

In conclusion, a recent study found that institutional gender bias is not a significant factor affecting women’s career progression in most academic STEM fields, although some fields, particularly the life sciences, would benefit from more concerted policy interventions. Additionally, as more women become tenured professors in maths-intensive fields, more female college students will be inspired to pursue a STEM degree, which would further alleviate faculty gender disparities in academic departments. However, it is important to recognise that achieving gender parity in STEM fields relies upon building a solid educational framework rooted in mathematics — for girls as well as for boys. Overall, the news is good: by making STEM careers more welcoming for half of the world’s population, we can build a better world for women and girls, for science, and in turn, for each and every one of us.


Stephen J. Ceci, Donna K. Ginther, Shulamit Kahn, and Wendy M. Williams (2014). Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15 (3) 75–141 | doi:10.1177/1529100614541236

Kristin A. Smith, Paola Arlotta, Fiona M. Watt, The Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering Working Group, and Susan L. Solomon (2015). Seven Actionable Strategies for Advancing Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Cell Stem Cell, 16 (3) 221–224 | doi:10.1016/j.stem.2015.02.012


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Originally published at The Guardian on 17 March 2015.