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 .
What about discrimination? A recent US study  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  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 , 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.
Another factor that arises repeatedly in all these reports (,  and ), 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 :
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.
 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).
 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).
 V. Gewin, ’Gender divide in physics spans globe’ Nature 473, 547 (2011).
 C. V. Robinson, ’Women in science: In pursuit of female chemists’ Nature 476, 273—275 (2011).