Women in Science

By Shaun Hendy 19/08/2011

The recent 2011 snapshot of women in science in New Zealand (you can get it here from the The New Zealand Association of Women in the Sciences) makes for sobering reading.  Peter Griffin has reproduced some of the stats in his blog.

In a nutshell, the report shows that there is a large gap in pay and status between men and women in science, especially at the highest levels.  There is evidently plenty of more work to do, but I believe that there would be big benefits for New Zealand if we were to close the gender gap in science.  The report does a great deal to bring transparency to the treatment of women in the scientific workforce, and this in itself is an important step forward.

The report shows that the gap between men and women grows steadily from high school, where gender differences are insignificant, through to the top of the science system, where women have very little representation.  Ministry of Education statistics from 2006 show the proportion of women New Zealanders with tertiary qualifications in science and engineering falls as the degree becomes more advanced:


From gender parity in undergraduate science, the proportion of those with a PhD in science who are women falls to nearly 25%. It is even worse in engineering: less than 15% of those with a PhD in Engineering are women. Why is this?

The missing half

Historically, the lack of women in science was justified on the basis of ability. However, the evident gender parity in the sciences at high school and at undergraduate level suggests that the gaps at higher levels have little to do with innate scientific ability.  Indeed, modern studies of gender differences in science and mathematics fail to find differences in ability, even in those with exceptional talent [1].

What about discrimination?  A recent US study [2] seems to suggest that explicit discrimination has been diminishing: given equal access to resources for research, the authors conclude that women scientists today perform as well as men in metrics such as publication rates, citation rates and grant success.  And indeed, the NZ Women in Science report shows that the gender split of principal investigators on Mardsen grants is very close to the overall gender split in the scientific workforce*.

Nonetheless, the fact is that women do receive fewer resources for their work.  Women physicists report [3] receiving less access to lab space and travel funds, fewer invited talks at conferences and fewer invitations to serve on important committees.

A female friendly workplace?

Of course, eliminating explicit gender discrimination in science is not the same thing as making the workplace female friendly.  Most of the women scientists I work with can share anecdotes of awkward, unsettling and occasionally hilarious encounters with condescending male colleagues.  In a recent Nature article [4], Professor Carol Robinson (the first woman to hold chairs in chemistry first at the University of Cambridge and then at the University of Oxford) notes some of the more subtle ways in which women are excluded:

Today, female postgraduates note less explicit biases that can make them feel excluded: from the all-male photos in chemistry departments, to the timing of early evening seminars, and the ensuing discussions in the local pub.

My impression is that increased mentoring and networking between women scientists has made factors like this less damaging than they would have been in the past.

Academic careers

Another factor that arises repeatedly in all these reports ([2], [3] and [4]), is the poor fit between academic career priorities and the desire to have a family.  Academic careers, especially those in science, are not tolerant of breaks.  Professor Robinson recounts her experience [4]:

I took an eight-year career break to cover the birth of my three children. I was warned that it was highly unlikely I would be able to return to science. I thought this was too high a price to pay for motherhood. Nowadays, when asked to talk to young women, I am often asked not to mention my career break, although I usually do. Sadly, it is not something that many institutions encourage.

If we compare the employment status of women with tertiary qualifications with that of men in similar circumstances, we see that women are much more likely than men to be working part-time (see below).  This most likely reflects child-care duties, which still fall disproportionately on women.  And being a part-time scientist in today’s highly competitive scientific world makes it that much harder to reach the top of your field.

Even when women chose not to have children, there is still pressure for women to put their partner’s career above their own.  Scientists are expected these days to have worked in several different institutions before they land a permanent job; at the very least that usually means working in different cities for one to two year stretches, if not different countries.  Under these circumstances it can be very difficult for partners, and I suspect that when push comes to shove many women choose their relationships over their career.

And then there is the ‘two body problem’.  A surprisingly high proportion of scientists have partners who are also scientists, and if the scientist is a woman, she is even more likely to have a partner who is also a scientist.  Finding a pair of good jobs in the same city is notoriously difficult for these couples.  In my own personal circle, I note that most of the women scientists I work with have a partner who is a scientist and many of these women have made compromises – some big, some not so big – for their partner’s career.

So what next?

New Zealand needs all the scientists and engineers it can get, so the current situation, where a significant proportion of our talent is marginalised, is not acceptable.  Furthermore, by creating an environment where women scientists can flourish, New Zealand could create a significant competitive advantage for itself by soaking up talent from around the world.

So what do we need to do?  For a start, I think that more transparency would be useful.  Organisations should be regularly reporting on the gender gap in their workforce  This should include publication of salaries, status, awards and grants received, broken down by gender and years of experience.  Once the data is out there, employers can either choose to address the gap or to bring Alisdair Thompson out of retirement to help justify the inequalities.

We also need to work on making scientific careers more female friendly.  For the last twenty years we have had one of the most competitive science funding systems in the world.  I suspect this system has been very hard on those who take time out for child care.  Professor Robinson has a more positive account of her break:

On returning in 1992, well-meaning academics tried to persuade me to follow fashionable pathways in proteomics and, a few years later, in metabolomics. But becoming a principal investigator in my forties, much later than most, I was already several years behind the leading labs and not sufficiently excited by these trends. I needed to do something different.

I pursued a path of putting macromolecular complexes into the gas phase of a mass spectrometer, not an obvious choice for the structural-biology questions I intended to ask. Well-respected scientists told me that the results would be meaningless. Happily, I chose not to follow too much of this advice.

So how about some Marsden restart grants for scientists returning to the work force?  It is clear that Professor Robinson’s break enabled her to step away from the mainstream and see her field in new ways.  Such a scheme might not only help retain our best women scientists, but might also inject new ideas and new directions into New Zealand science.

The countries that can solve these problems for women are the countries that will win the battle for scientific talent in the twenty-first century.  Lets make sure New Zealand is one of those countries!

* Comparing the 2006 scientific workforce (excluding the medical and veterinary sectors) on Pg 11 to the 2004 Marsden Fund principal investigators on Pg 17.

[1] T. Andreescu, J. A. Gallian, J. M. Kane, and J. E. Mertz ’Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving’ Notices of the AMS 55, 1248-60 (2008).

[2] S. J. Ceci and W. M. Williams ’Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science’ Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108, 3157-62 (2011).

[3] V. Gewin, ’Gender divide in physics spans globe’ Nature 473, 547 (2011).

[4] C. V. Robinson, ’Women in science: In pursuit of female chemists’ Nature 476, 273—275 (2011).

0 Responses to “Women in Science”

  • How about cleaning house in the CRIs for a start. Boards heavily dominated my middle aged white males and senior executive teams with the same imbalance hardly make for an environment where women can imagine a career let alone achieve it. At best CRIs pay lip service to equality, at worst it’s active discrimination of the kind we thought had disappeared in the 60s.

    And yes the two body problem is very real. There is an active bias against couples working together despite the fact they are very common. And if they do survive then almost always the man is deferred to, even if it is the woman who is the smarter of the couple.

  • With the beginning disclaimer that I’m not an expert on such things I do find some of the figures/graphs above to be potentially misleading.

    First the good. I agree that there should be more transparency on salaries, status, awards and grants nad that the careers should indeed be more female friendly. It does seem far too often the standard answer to ‘how do we encourage woman into our field’ is to simply offer scholarships without any serious consideration as to what the problem actually is that’s preventing them and by extension whether scholarships will have any appreciable effect.

    The bad. In the graphs for the employment of tertiary educated people I think it would have been very useful to also include what the rates where like in general and/or for non-tertiary educated people. Don’t get me wrong, hiring practices of those other companies are possibly worse and thus not a perfect comparison, however looking at the jobs of tertiary educated women you can see the situation improving with higher qualifications and it would’ve been interesting to see if it put women in a better/worse/indifferent position than had they simply got a job without going to uni. Further (recalling my disclaimer at the top) articles such as Ceci and Williams’ have encouraged me to think that many of the statements about women getting paid less than men are kind of wrong. In that you often hear the argument that women should get paid the same as men for the same job. The linked, and other papers, I’ve read (sometimes about rather than the paywalled paper itself) have suggested that if you control to an appropriate level women actually get paid the same or a (statistically insignificant) amount more than men and the real problem is that the distribution of women in whatever profession you care to name is not the same as the distribution of men. It’s a subtle difference but one I think can be very easy to overlook/confuse. And, sure, you do have the report from woman physicists but it does seem to all be self reported and so how biased might it be by perception? It’s not clear to me…

    Just my 5c. 🙂

  • Happyevilslosh: You make some interesting points.

    Re: the advantages of going to uni – the stats show that generally you are better off going to Uni whether you are male or female, even more so if you do science or engineering! (There is lots of data available here: http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/). But really, what I wanted to show with those plots was that women are more likely to be working part-time than men, even when they have a PhD, although as you note, the differential does indeed narrow when you have a PhD.

    Re: Ceci and Williams. It’s important to note that what they controlled for was “resources”, measured in terms of the quality of institution where individuals worked. (For the record it’s also worth noting that they didn’t look at pay; rather they looked at success in journal publishing, citations and grants). So when they controlled for resources, they didn’t find a difference. Nonetheless women are ending up with fewer resources. So if they are right, individual women won’t be publishing less or winning fewer grants than their male colleagues, but as there are fewer women in the top institutions and more in less esteemed universities, women as a whole will not be performing as well as men.

    Now Ceci and Williams attribute this difference in resources to “lifestyle choices”; in my post I wanted to draw attention to how these “choices” can arise from other pressures on women and to suggest how we might lessen the impact of these “choices” on careers and hence performance.

  • Well, I can definitely identify with this, as a women scientist who left uni after MSc(Hons) (kicking & screaming) to support my scientist husband to finish his PhD. I was lucky to get a great job, but 2 lots of maternity leave & now working part time certainly takes its toll. There are of course flow on effects, including limited opportunities to travel and therefore to present work at conferences (an issue particularly difficult in a small country like New Zealand). It doesn’t help the situation any to have to watch the clock carefully and plan my day (and therefore experimental work) around child pick-up times or that my sick leave has had to be extended past myself to the children, as well as their caregiver. As I already earnt less than my husband, it makes economic sense for me to take primary responsibility for childcare. There are also cultural and societal pressures that influence the situation, for example, my father in law has a strong perception that what is good for my husbands career is good for the family (but what cost does his sabbatical come at for me?).

    Before I had kids, I would have scoffed at any idea of inequality. Now, struggling to work in the system, I can easily see how women fall through the cracks (from my perspective of actually still having a science job, I consider myself very lucky). From my experience at least, it is not a gender inequality, but a mother inequality. I am pleased to see the issue being addressed, and positive steps considering to allow women to compete in this system. Thank you for the excellent post!

  • Bart,

    “And if they do survive then almost always the man is deferred to, even if it is the woman who is the smarter of the couple.”

    If this is the case, then isn’t the problem with the couple itself? I know several couples where the woman’s career has been put first because she is the smarter of the two, with the husband taking on most of the childcare duties.

    To some extent I think how successfully a woman can be in science depends on the level of support she gets from her partner. If she chooses/has to do most of the parenting then of course her career will suffer. There is only so much any one can do when they are raising children. However, I think the idea of funding to allow women to re-enter the science work force has some merit.
    However, could this be seen as giving them an unfair advantage over those who do not have children and have focused on science continuously? Particularly in a very tight funding environment?

  • When I was looking for positions at universities in Germany, I would (nearly) always find that the description of the position finished with a statement to the effect that if the top applicants were equally capable, and if one was from a group that was under-represented in that department, then the position would first be offered to the applicant from the less represented group. This seemed like a constructive way of first acknowledging and then trying to rectify the imbalances.

    Marsden _Restart_ grants sound like an excellent idea, by the way!

  • “From my experience at least, it is not a gender inequality, but a mother inequality.”

    I think that statement pretty much hits the nail on the head. The problem with most debates around gender inequality is that gender is actually just a poor operationalization of the more proximal predictors of career outcome-Primary caregiver. If men were encouraged to take time off for paternity leave, half days, flexitime, sick days, etc. to care for their children. Then it would have two results. First, by definition, if more men took part in activities that the market doesn’t reward (childcare) then it would even out gender differences. Second, I bet employers will soon learn that taking time off doesn’t have nearly as large an affect as they thought it would.
    The best policy position I’ve seen for creating this change was the Scandinavian countries that have made part of the parental leave available only if the father takes it. Pretty soon it goes from, the man take 1 month and the woman 5, to them both taking 3 months…

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