Study: Overt Discrimination Not Driving the Underrepresentation of Women in Science

By Andrew Moseman | February 8, 2011 1:26 pm

In the continuing debate about how to make the career playing field more level for women in science, much of the attention has been focused on eliminating outright sexism in publishing and hiring. For a study published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, researchers looking into the causes of the lingering gender gap for women in math-intensive sciences suggest that it’s not outright discrimination that’s holding women back.

A 2008 survey of US universities by the National Science Foundation revealed that less than 30% of PhDs in the physical sciences were awarded to women. Higher up the ranks, women make up only about 10% of full professorships in physics-related disciplines. Yet when psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, sifted through 20 years of research, they found little evidence of continued gender bias in journal reviewers, granting agencies or hiring committees. [Nature]

Instead, Ceci and Williams say, external and social factors—some matters of choice, some not—are the major ones hindering women in science today. Those factors include the much-discussed, such as the fact that a mother with young kids is still expected to stay on the fast tenure track, and the less-obvious, such as caring for aging parents or following a spouse who gets a job in a different city.

Overall, women scientists with the same resources — lab facilities and funding, for example — have careers equal to men. However women overall are more likely to step off the career track than male researchers, the study concludes, explaining a lot of the differences in their lives. [USA Today]

The scientists aren’t implying that efforts to stop overt discrimination haven’t been worth it. Quite the contrary—the study’s results would indicate that they’ve been effective. The question now is whether to shift more of the attention to fixing the career path problems Ceci and Williams point out, and which Nobel Prize-winning women have singled out as needing an adjustment.

They argue that focusing on discrimination at application stages may represent a costly red herring and that resources should be redirected towards education and policy changes that reflect the challenges faced by women interested in building a long-term career in science. [The Guardian]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The 50 Most Important Women in Science
DISCOVER: Why Science Must Adapt to Women
80beats: Nobel Laureate: Fix the Scientific Career Ladder & Let Women Climb
80beats: More Evidence that Girls Kick Ass at Math, Just Like Boys

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
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