The Invisible Barriers to Women in Science

1258_webBy Meghan Sullivan

On her visit to the University of Chicago earlier this month, Megan Urry gave two very different talks, both backed with empirical evidence and arriving at clear, well-supported conclusions. However, while her afternoon talk to the astronomy department focused on her research of Active Galactic Nuclei, Urry’s earlier talk was on a subject more universal to academia: why are there so few women in science?

Expressing a sentiment that is common among young female scientists, Urry, Israel Munson Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Chair of Physics at Yale University, started out by admitting that as a student it was hard to imagine that the blatant discrimination of the 1950s and 60s could possibly affect her career in the 1980s. Harder still was the dawning realization that many of the obstacles were based more on gender than merit, though the symptoms of bias were more subtle than they had been in the past.

“It turns out that we scientists are a species that are of great interest to [sociologists],” Urry said, describing her research into the sociological literature on gender in the STEM sciences (science, technology, engineering, and math). “Sociologists understand very well why there are so few women in science.”

The fact that there are fewer women in science is beyond doubt. Data has repeatedly shown that women’s academic careers progress more slowly and they are less likely to be hired into academic positions, where they are then less likely to get tenured. Such trends become obvious when the numbers of PhDs awarded to women and the number of female faculty members hired are compared; women are lost between each level (described previously by Nancy Hopkins as the “Leaky Pipeline”).

“Our scientific fields are not fully utilizing the talent that is out there,” Urry pointed out. “We are basically dipping deeper into the talent pool of men instead of finding the outstanding women that are out there…if we hire a smaller fraction of women as professors than there are women with PhDs we have basically thrown away talent.”

To address why women were underrepresented in these fields, Urry debunked several myths surrounding women in science, key among them being family status.

“Family is the number one hypothesis that people come up with when I talk with them about these issues,” Urry admitted with some frustration. “But the truth is this cannot be the explanation.”

Considering that 70 percent of American women with children under the age of two work, it seems unlikely that having children would uniquely affect women in science. A well-known study by Mason & Goulden titled “Do Babies Matter?” is often interpreted as concluding that if women have children, they will fall behind. In fact, women who have children are more likely to become part-time employees. This, Urry said, certainly affects women’s progress in academia. However, among women who stay full time, those without children are not more successful than women with children, indicating family status cannot define how women succeed.

“Having a family is hard, but it’s so much easier to do it as a grad student, a post doc, a tenured professor than it is – for instance – to do it as an employee at Walmart,” Urry said. “Grad students at Yale make more than your average Walmart employee. You have control of your hours, work, and you can get help pretty easily.”

Since family status is an unsupported explanation for the gender imbalance, the issue of scientific aptitude often arises. A study published by the National Academy Press entitled “Beyond Bias and Barriers” reported findings on women’s ability, persistence in science, evaluation by peers, and reviewed strategies that effectively kept women in science. By almost all measures there was no difference in ability, the one exception being rotation of 3D objects in space, which seems to be more attributable to childhood play than inborn aptitude.

“There are no measured differences between the abilities of men and women that could possibly explain the large gender gap seen in science professions,” Urry stated.

If under-representation of women in these fields is not due to family status, differences in innate ability, or conscious decisions by universities and recruiters to admit fewer women, a more subtle and, arguably, more difficult source emerged: unconscious gender bias. Various studies have repeatedly and consistently shown that work associated with a woman’s name is not rated as well as work of equal quality associated with a man’s name. Interestingly, this trend persists whether the reviewers are men or women (for a test of your objectivity, go here, a website run by Mahzarin Banaji, who studies bias across several social stratifications).

These subconscious categories bleed into real world issues in a variety of ways, including letters of recommendation, in which women are more likely to receive pedestrian descriptors such as “reliable” or “persistent” whereas men are described as “brilliant” or “creative.” Furthermore, coaching styles used by mentors are not equally effective for both men and women – men respond better to direct criticism while women improve with reinforcement of their achievements. The idea persists that if women need mentoring, or a different form of mentoring, they’re simply not good enough.

“What mentors need to understand is your graduate students are not a homogenous set of clones of you,” Urry said, stressing the need for mentors to react to the needs of their students.

So what can we do to change the status quo? While certain fields are slowly approaching equilibrium, others, such as mathematics and physics, still lag behind. Among advice she gave to young female researchers, Urry encouraged women to work at something they love, something they’ll be able to publish high-impact papers about, and to develop connections with other women in science. Such networks, Urry pointed out, are fantastic seeds of change and help provided much needed mentorship among young women. Confidence, she assured the audience, must be cultivated among young women, who should not apologize for their aspirations or become discouraged.

“Own your ambitions,” she said, “It really scares me the way young women dial back their aspirations because they’re anticipating that they’ll have to make compromises – believe me, the young men aren’t doing that.”

For citations to the studies referenced above and copies of Dr Urry’s recent talks on Active Galactic Nuclei and women in science, visit her homepage.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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