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

  • maggie lee

    “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…”
    Yeah, every time some guy walks away from the husband/father track, some woman – willing? I s’pose – gets ripped off her track. SOSO regardless of social position or type of a career. If we could just get rid of that pesky reproductive thing – everyone could be selfish equally.

  • Sieben Stern

    i agree with the above – i think it’s more of a societal discrimination – women are expected and trained from birth to be mothers and caretakers, so if there’s a child she’ll be the one taking care of it.

    women make ‘lifestyle’ choices’ not out of want, but out of necessity – when men step up we’ll all be equal.

  • jld

    If we could just get rid of that pesky reproductive thing…

    Intellectually gifted women would be even less prone to breed which in the long run will put an evolutionary pressure toward a society of “marching morons”.
    Take your pick…

  • Tomek

    What a terrible headline.

    Sexism is not defined by individual actions. It’s a system of actions and expectations. Lifestyle choices are still intimately related to sexism and social attitudes towards what women should or can do.

    What this headline and article does is play down the relevance of having an understanding of what sexism is. It also propagates single minded representations of sexism. That doesn’t benefit anyone. To be fair, I am mostly talking about the headline, and the first part of the article. There is substance and worth in it, but I don’t think it addresses things well.

  • Raima

    The original PNAS article addressed the question of why women in math and physics related fields have such a poor representation among faculty ranks (10%) compared to those in biology and medicine, which are approximately 50% women. They found no explanation for this discrepancy in manuscript reviews, proposal reviews, funding rates or even hiring committees, so concluded that the problem lies in “institutional factors.”

    The focus on women’s reproductive needs cannot explain this discrepancy, since women in biology and medicine face the same life choices as those in physics, math and chemistry. Every biology department has the same “institutional factors” as every chemistry, physics or math department–except for the people involved. Open discrimination is now essentially socially unacceptable, so if it exists it must occur at a very subtle level–in the hearts of minds of those involved. How can any scientific study unearth evidence for an effect that is deliberately hidden or lied about?

    Unfortunately, this blog post missed the main point of the study and completely ignored the other conclusion, that girls are dissuaded from pursuing mathematically-oriented studies because they are “more interested in people” than in things. As someone who loves math because it helps me understand how people behave, I think this points to a severe failure in our educational system to make math relevant to those who are interested in people. Making these changes in our schools would benefit both boys and girls.

  • Andrew Moseman

    Fair point about the headline this post received; “choices” is a loaded word here, and though the researchers used it themselves referencing both constrained and non-constrained ones, I changed the headline.

    I feel that the main point of the study is, as stated in the abstract, “Addressing today’s causes of underrepresentation requires focusing on education and policy changes that will make institutions responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes.” That is alluded to in the piece. The point about people vs. things is an excellent one, and one that we didn’t mention only because this is a short summation post and the authors buried that point toward the end of their study.

  • Katharine

    If we could just get rid of that pesky reproductive thing…

    Intellectually gifted women would be even less prone to breed which in the long run will put an evolutionary pressure toward a society of “marching morons”.
    Take your pick…

    In which case men better shoulder their burden on making it easier for women to both reproduce and have a career as good as that of men with equal opportunities for prominence and Nobels and such, because smart women are not going to reproduce unless they darned well want to, especially not with sexist idiots.

    Even then, some of us don’t want to reproduce because, well, we just hate children, not just because they are the career-killer the way fear is the mind-killer.

  • Katharine

    I think everything would be a whole lot better if both sexes could get pregnant. Then the other half of the human race would be able to know what it’s like to need an abortion or to want to get your tubes tied because you don’t want any children or to have your career in danger because of a womb-booger!

    Ain’t that DELIGHTFUL?

  • Kennan Salinero

    Two of the points mentioned above have come up in my interviews. Even recently I spoke with a physicist at a major technology company who stated ‘women just don’t have the creativity needed for our R&D division. We had one once, but she couldn’t take the jokes.” So, the belief system and ‘atmosphere’ seem to have entrenched in some areas (math, computers, engineering).

    I particularly like the book “How the Universe Got its Spots” to get a feel for the social constructs and lifestyle expectations, though that is not the intent of the gifted author.

    The second area is having children. We are so looking at this as an either/or. What if we envisioned a career track that allowed a more natural flow through our careers, based on our lives? We created that the highest demands of a scientific career occur at ages 25-40 (not the Universe). So we can also change it.

    Nicholas Wolfinger, Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden have shown that ‘birth events’ have different outcomes in various fast-track careers (in their study, “Alone in the Ivory Tower: How Birth Events Vary Among Fast-Track Professionals”).

    We are losing the talent and discoveries available to us if we would just be more imaginative. I believe complexity and self-organization can transform STEM careers through our commitment, imagination and adoption of practices from other communities. It’s time to evolve!

  • M-in-Calif

    FACT: it is WOMEN who have the burning desire to reproduce.
    They drop in and out of the workforce MUCH more than men do.
    It’s what they want.

    Blaming discrimination for this, is like blaming discrimination for the fact that men are underrepresented as daycare employees.
    These idiotic arguments assume men & women are alike.
    They are not!


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