As female science graduates, we are well aware of the challenges that have faced women working in science. After graduation there is a near neck-and-neck gender representation in the sciences, but when the postdoc careers hot up, the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon becomes apparent.
This has been attributed, in part, to the fact that many women take breaks from work to propagate the human race. When women take maternity leave the statistics show that this is when they commonly lose out on career progression experienced by their male peers.
Incidentally, this observation regarding women who have kids in no way disputes challenges experienced by women who decide not to have children. Successful women in all fields in Oz have been lucky enough in the past to have the lovely label of ‘barren’ slapped upon them (e.g. ex-PM Julia Gillard), should they ‘fail’ to fulfil their physiological imperative (thank you, current PM Tony Abbott!) to reproduce – but if they do have kids then their careers suffer. Talk about a Catch-22.
Individual anecdotes and broader studies both indicate that institutional sexism is alive, kicking and screaming – which is a problem that persists outside the lab or the lecture theatre. If women scientists troop home from the lab and collapse onto the sofa to enjoy a popular science book or TV show, they are typically encountered with a male face.
The media is guilty of showing a man as ‘the face’ of science: on TV, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson each have shows and corresponding fan bases, but we Bio Detectives are hard-pressed to name a female scientist with the same influence.
That’s not to say female science presenters are banned from appearing on telly; Australian TV at least does admit a couple of brilliant women on-screen in the popular ABC show Catalyst. There have been improvements in the UK with scientists such as Alice Roberts presenting popular BBC shows on prehistoric autopsy. However as men dominate the top jobs in science and engineering worldwide, it’s little wonder that the media reflects this.
In terms of public perception of science, it’s hard to argue that the ‘lone geek’ stereotype has been entirely eradicated. There are however excellent public-engagement initiatives by research institutes in Australia, such as the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, the Garvan Institute and the Kinghorn Cancer Centre. Their free lab tours, media reports and social media updates serve both to explain what they do and why medical research matters, as well as garnering support from the public in the form of charity events and donations.
There has also been a campaign to up the digital profile of female scientists. In such initiatives, female scientists are proudly celebrated, but of course there is still a long way to go – just 17% of the top positions in Australian science are held by women and according to the 2014 statistics from WISE the number of women in STEM occupations in the UK has risen to just 13%.
As this is the situation in 2015 it is a pretty worrying indictment of women’s prospects in science this generation. Surely developed, wealthy countries such as Britain and Australia should have a better handle on empowering women to pursue scientific careers by now?
Considering some aspects of what a research career entails, the plus point could be a relative degree of flexibility – the normal ‘9 – 5’ hours don’t really exist in a laboratory. But if time is taken off during maternity leave, the field moves rapidly, so many women may find it hard to transition back into a frenetic research environment when they return after giving birth. For a woman with a young family – especially if she carries out the majority of housework and childcare – long hours in the lab coupled with pressure to publish and travel for conferences mean that a scientific career is not exactly an easy option.
As put by Prof Suzanne Cory, former president of the Association for Australian Science, “child-bearing and child nurture make it very difficult for a woman to compete in science at the highest level. The long hours required to become a successful experimental scientist are not easily slotted into a family schedule.”
And that’s before we consider issues such as fairly poor job security, frequent change (the post-doc life may involve moving regularly) and the apparent gender pay gap in science. Even Marie Curie (double Nobel Prize winner) said “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”
As for the thorny issue of the gender pay gap, there are many conflicting reports regarding this issue, both in terms of STEM and non-STEM careers. Some argue it is at least in part due to implicit discrimination (as we will see in the ‘Jennifer vs John’ case) and others stating it is due to women making different career choices, i.e. tending to go for poorer-paid jobs.
If the latter is the case then it seems schools and universities have their work cut out in encouraging female ambition. Other reports indicate that there are probably instances of implicit discrimination both in STEM and non-STEM careers that result in women receiving lower pay, but the STEM gender pay gap may be smaller than that of non-STEM careers – so if this is the case, we are on the right track.
There is evidence to show that as the number of women enrolling in higher education has ballooned the gap has narrowed – in some cases girls initially earn more than boys soon after graduating, but only for certain careers, while a couple of years after this point men begin to earn more than women. This trend continues throughout working life.
The issue is further complicated by the slow increase in girls pursuing traditionally male-dominated (i.e. maths and science) degree subjects, which also happen to be better paid than many careers that involve the humanities.
Apart from the combined challenges of juggling children, cash-flow and early career progression, what of higher-level attrition? Women seem to leave science at a higher rate than men – for some industries they exit in droves, with an estimated cost to the US economy of $1bn a year.
Even after overcoming the hurdle of balancing babies and bench work, women don’t exactly bounce back with regard to their professional prospects. In a 2010 study by the US National Research Council women comprised about one-third of assistant professors and a quarter of tenure candidates within the field of biological sciences. In 2006 a survey of European universities revealed that just 11% of senior faculty members were female.
A bias study ‘Jennifer vs John’ found that a male science candidate was received in a more favourable manner by faculty staff, suggesting some sort of implicit bias. In this study authors asked faculty members to rate the applications of students for the position of laboratory manager. The applications were randomly assigned a male or female name – Jennifer or John. They found that male applications were consistently rated more highly than their identical female counterpart by hiring staff – regardless of the sex of that faculty member. They also found that male applicants were offered higher starting salaries and a greater degree career progression mentoring.
This suggests that men are often viewed as more competent just because they are men and that they are more likely to be hired than women.
Another PNAS study (2014) showed that on average elite male faculty in American institutions were less likely to hire and train women. Women in top positions did not exhibit such a bias, but men in the top jobs hired and trained 10-40% fewer women than did other investigators. This may not indicate bias on the part of the male professors, as it’s possible that fewer women applied for the roles in the first place (perhaps because women have been deemed ‘less confident’ in a professional setting), but whatever the reason it seems like this is something that must change, whether that be our apparently entrenched bias or female confidence levels.
As Sheryl Sandberg puts it, women need to put themselves forward, going for positions even if they are worried they could be affected by gender bias. If institutional sexism persists, it seems necessary that there are regulating bodies to offer consultation. Obviously rejecting people on the grounds of their gender or other factors contravenes employment laws, but it still occurs. (On a related note, a recent study in Oz showed that gay men receive lower pay to do the same job as a straight man; straight women also receive lower pay, but openly gay women are ‘rewarded’ with a pay boost, it’s thought because they are deemed ‘less likely to have children’).
Although tales of discrimination are disheartening, we remain optimistic. It is true that it has never been a better time to be a woman entering science. Admirable initiatives such as Athena Swan in the UK, the Women in Science Australia group and fantastic ‘Science 50:50’ programme are all encouraging.
Our own experiences with inspiring women tutors and supervisors make us hopeful that this generation could see a further surge in the numbers of successful women scientists and engineers. Professor Cory puts it as follows: “Give our girls visions of becoming astronauts and explorers, engineers and inventors, rather than of becoming Disney princesses and of meeting Prince Charming.”
When small girls are encouraged to pursue ‘boys’’ subjects in STEM fields perhaps the 50:50 vision will eventually become reality.
Such efforts to overcome traditional gender stereotypes must start in the classroom – as the Economist states ‘much ability, both male and female, is wasted because of tenacious stereotypes’. Girls today outstrip boys in academic achievement in most subjects across the world. Worryingly however, fewer girls are choosing to study subjects like maths and sciences at school, in Australia at least, despite overall higher academic achievement. “Sadly, in our schools, the proportion of girls taking serious science and maths subjects has been dwindling rather than improving” – so says Cory.
In an effort to alter this scenario wrongheaded (and, well, hilarious) initiatives like ‘Science – it’s a Girl Thing’ are parodied for a dunderheaded rendering of ‘science’ as an endeavour that solely involves strutting around a laboratory in high heels (who knew a symbol for hydrogen could inspire so much giggling?) pouting in impeccable make up (that’s all gals do right?!) – in front of a bemused bloke in a labcoat.
It is clear that the issue of underrepresentation of women in science is still a big issue. But perhaps an even bigger issue is the underrepresentation of different ethnic groups and other minority groups, such as people with disabilities. These issues are not mentioned here simply because we feel they deserve an article in their own right.
At the end of the day, humour is the way forward, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll bawl, right?