Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

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Last summer, researchers at Yale published a study proving that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts.

The new study goes a long way toward providing hard evidence of a continuing bias against women in the sciences. Only one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American; of all the physics professors in the United States, only 14 percent are women. The numbers of black and Hispanic scientists are even lower; in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics. The reasons for those shortages are hardly mysterious — many minority students attend secondary schools that leave them too far behind to catch up in science, and the effects of prejudice at every stage of their education are well documented. But what could still be keeping women out of the STEM fields (“STEM” being the current shorthand for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics”), which offer so much in the way of job prospects, prestige, intellectual stimulation and income?

As one of the first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics from Yale — I graduated in 1978 — this question concerns me deeply. I attended a rural public school whose few accelerated courses in physics and calculus I wasn’t allowed to take because, as my principal put it, “girls never go on in science and math.” Angry and bored, I began reading about space and time and teaching myself calculus from a book. When I arrived at Yale, I was woefully unprepared. The boys in my introductory physics class, who had taken far more rigorous math and science classes in high school, yawned as our professor sped through the material, while I grew panicked at how little I understood. The only woman in the room, I debated whether to raise my hand and expose myself to ridicule, thereby losing track of the lecture and falling further behind.

In the end, I graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in the major, having excelled in the department’s three-term sequence in quantum mechanics and a graduate course in gravitational physics, all while teaching myself to program Yale’s mainframe computer. But I didn’t go into physics as a career. At the end of four years, I was exhausted by all the lonely hours I spent catching up to my classmates, hiding my insecurities, struggling to do my problem sets while the boys worked in teams to finish theirs. I was tired of dressing one way to be taken seriously as a scientist while dressing another to feel feminine. And while some of the men I wanted to date weren’t put off by my major, many of them were.

Written By: Eileen Pollack
continue to source article at nytimes.com

32 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by Peter Grant:

      Evidence of bias is not necessarily evidence of discrimination. Real talent rises above all of that.

      Even if it is bias, it’s gender equal biasing, even the ladies need to try harder (not to be biased).

      Real talent needs luck too.

        • In reply to #3 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #2 by alaskansee:

          Real talent needs luck too.

          Real talent doesn’t believe in luck.

          Chance may be a better way to put it. Being in the right place at the right time, that type of thing. If you’re successful it is easy to convince yourself your success is all your hard work but it is a massive number of independent factors many of which you have no control over. Needless to say we all know someone who has no talent at all and has risen to the top. Sorry I put it so badly.

          • In reply to #22 by alaskansee:

            Chance may be a better way to put it. Being in the right place at the right time, that type of thing. If you’re successful it is easy to convince yourself your success is all your hard work but it is a massive number of independent factors many of which you have no control over.

            I am not successful, nor have I ever been in the right place at at the right time, but I recognise that none of this is my fault.

          • In reply to #26 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #22 by alaskansee:

            I am not successful, nor have I ever been in the right place at at the right time, but I recognise that none of this is may be my fault.

            I was in the right place at the right time when I picked my friends child from a sinking canoe to the gratitude of his mother. I doubt that you have never been in the right place, it just depends on your perspective, he was a horrible child.

            Edit -It’s also safe to say, without knowing anymore about you than I do, that you are indeed very successful using the group – people and subgroup – successful people.

  1. This has puzzled me for over a decade now. I studied Physics at Bristol and the gender ratio in our research group wasn’t awful as Bristol does pride itself on being the first English university to admit women on the same basis as men.

    There were around 10 female researchers and about 30 odd male researchers. But none of the female researchers were English! Not one. In the 5 odd years I spent at the University, I came across very few female English students in Physics and Engineering faculties. Most often they were from Asia (China, India, Japan) or from Europe (France, Germany, Spain)

    And the situation is far worse outside the university walls, in the industry. I work in technology and get to travel a bit and the situation in Europe, especially in UK is just awful. I come across female engineers often in Asia and in US. But very rarely do I meet female engineers in UK. Even worse are attitudes of engineers (mainly from the older generation) towards our female colleagues. One of the people I worked for, an engineering manager from Austin had to deal with blatant rude remarks and sexist jokes when ever she visited UK. She took the challenge like a true Texan. She had to work doubly hard to get the same recognition her male counterparts got. Somehow, the unwritten rule was, she has something to prove.

    How could a country, that is otherwise quite gender neutral, and progressive, turn a blind eye towards the way women are treated in science and technology? Germany seems to suffer from similar problem, not enough female students in science and engineering faculties. But at least I don’t come across sexist and bigoted attitudes from German colleagues. The situation seems to be not so bad in Asia and North America. Is this the case of my misapprehension?

  2. No one has satisfactorily answered this question for me, so…,

    The parity in both chemistry and biology is almost there ( post grad rates and similar parity, though not always working scientists ), but in physics, mathematics and engineering parity is not even close for the sexes.

    So, if this is the result of bias why are physicists, mathematicians and engineers more biased than chemists and biologists?

    • In reply to #5 by Neodarwinian:

      So, if this is the result of bias why are physicists, mathematicians and engineers more biased than chemists and biologists?

      One explanation is that women are not as interested in ‘things’ and how things work innately and therefore not as likely to enter the field. Their focus is more on people and relationships between them. I think I read that in one of Pinker’s books. It may not be true, but it shouldn’t be hearsay to think it’s a possibility.

      • In reply to #11 by Skeptic:

        In reply to #5 by Neodarwinian:

        So, if this is the result of bias why are physicists, mathematicians and engineers more biased than chemists and biologists?

        One explanation is that women are not as interested in ‘things’ and how things work innately and therefore not as likely to enter the field….

        Yes, I read that too. Still, feminist would not accept that and that begs the question anyway. Why are women less interested in these fields, thing things, and more interested in people things?

        Possibly ultimate evolutionary underpinnings? But that is not ideologically acceptable in many academic fields either. So, even if you have the tentative answer you can not get everyone to accept the answer. And then the bias question is still there. Is there a difference there in men in the ” hard ” sciences?

        So, back to square one!

      • In reply to #11 by Skeptic:

        In reply to #5 by Neodarwinian:

        So, if this is the result of bias why are physicists, mathematicians and engineers more biased than chemists and biologists?

        One explanation is that women are not as interested in ‘things’ and how things work innately and therefore not as likely to enter the field….

        There is a level of truth to this.There is a book called The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, related to Borat). In general, guys do have a tendency to be more interested in “things” and “systems” whereas girls tend to be more interested in “relationship” topics. In general, men can tolerate solitude longer than women. The evolutionary explanation (too long to elaborate on here) is laid out in Baron-Cohen’s book along with his theory that autism is, in some ways, an extreme form of the male brain. People on the autism spectrum often would rather talk about things than people. Females on the autism spectrum tend to be more “tomboyish” and there is apparently a slightly larger population of FTM transgenders with autism than would be expected by chance. One theory is that people on the autism spectrum are exposed to excess testosterone in the womb.

        Anybody who’s seen my posts knows that I often talk about Asperger’s Syndrome, because I have it. Well, here I “fit in” with the typical person on the spectrum: I am very tomboyish, I prefer to talk about “things” and “systems” (like evolution or movie making) than people. I can spend weeks at a time by myself without feeling “lonely.” I hate small talk because it strikes me as phony. Last week I was at NYU for the Richard Dawkins event. I was with a friend whom I hadn’t seen since I moved out of NYC in February, and afterwards the two of us met up with my brother and another friend I hadn’t seen since February. The kind of people I hang around with tend to be a little quirky and not into small talk. We talk about science and movies and anything else that piques our interest. And for fun we do dirty Mad Libs [noun: God's shrived left testicle]. ;) Our friendship dynamic tends to be more typically “masculine”; we bond around shared interests (typically male) rather than shared experiences (typically female). What drives me crazy is when my mother– typical woman in terms of social habits– asks me, “How’s [insert name here] doing? What does s/he do for a living?” I usually don’t have an answer because my friends and I just don’t talk about these things.

        Okay, so here I’ve reported on the general profile for men, women, and… people with Asperger’s Syndrome. The important thing to remember is that it is an AVERAGE and that ultimately everybody is different. My father has excellent spatial reasoning and can fix anything, but the person I know with the best spatial reasoning of anyone I’ve ever met is a woman. She’s not Ms. Fix-It, but she is an animator… you have to have superb spatial reasoning to do that. It just so happens that her talent for spatial reasoning went towards animation, not mechanics. However, I am certain if she were interested in mechanics she would be really good at it. When she and her boyfriend buy something that needs to be assembled, she is often the one who puts it together.

        I don’t know any guys who are more into small-talk and talking about people but… well… we wouldn’t have much in common for a friendship, so there you go. But as an example of guys I know fitting some “feminine” stereotypes… Well, you know the stereotype of women who can’t watch movies with gory scenes or look at gross pictures or hear a disturbing story in the news without getting an intolerable visceral reaction? I know a guy who is like that more than any woman I know except, possibly, my mother.

        So the short answer is, yes, on average there are these differences between male and female styles of thinking. But there are exceptions to the rule.

        Julie

  3. Neo,
    Great question. I do not, sadly, have anywhere close to an answer. It is distressing to me because when I think of science and scientists, I think of a discipline and a group that BY NECESSITY knows how to be unbiased. It is disheartening to think that the groups that should be demonstrably the most fair are this far from fair. It makes me wonder what women face in other fields….

    As a father, husband, son, son in law, teacher….etc… I do not want to accept the sad reality that my wife, daughter, mom, students etc… are being systemically crapped on. It hurts my sensibilities.

    That is not to say that I’d point at “men” and scream about blame. But, there seems to be an inherent flaw in the system. One that it would benefit all if we could root it out and identify and deal with.

  4. It makes me wonder what women face in other fields….

    Even women in the arts take a back seat to men. Certain areas of creative fields are dominated by men while other areas are dominated by women. It’s fairly stereotypical stuff. Check out fashion and then movie special effects. Toss a guy into a female dominated area of the arts and if he has a big ego, he will dominate. A mediocre male will be promoted quickly and make more $$. I’ve seen it so many times, it’s ridiculous.

  5. From my experience, woman are just as sexist as– if not MORE sexist than– men in some ways. I’m not even talking about the whole, “women can’t do this, men can” thing. Look at the ridiculous things that women are expected to do: shave their legs and armpits, spend copious amounts of putting on makeup and doing their hair, wear “sexy” clothing, behave in a passive “ladylike” way… I really don’t think they are getting this pressure from men. I think it’s coming from other women. In terms of my own personal experience, it was always my mother and grandmother who chastised me for not acting ladylike when I was growing up. My father thought they were being ridiculous. Now, obviously that’s one experience, but I think it ties in with my general observations. Haven’t you seen teenage girls assuring each other that they’re not fat, or insulting each other because they are fat? Do guys do that to girls? Sometimes, but I think it’s mostly girls doing it to girls. Same with guys chastising each other for not being manly enough. Women aren’t insulting them for that. It’s other men!

  6. I talked with a women who was the only female in her year in engineering. She was very tough, but the hazing was vicious, not to mention the sexism. If you have a mostly male group, they gang up on the females and try to exclude them. Once the females form 50% then the behaviour changes.

    For high school age children, people who like science are excluded as geeks. Male geeks band together. The derision for a female to join this group would be extreme.

    When I first got into computing in the early 60s, males and females were about equal. There was no stereotype other than you had to be intelligent. It struck me as a naturally equal opportunity profession, but computers then acquired a geeky reputation (muddled with video games), and females pulled back.

    A science education, like a medical doctor, takes a long time. You would think that would discourage females who wanted to also have a family, but it does not. There are more females than males in medicine.

  7. In a frequently cited 1999 study, a sample of University of Michigan students with similarly strong backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups. In the first, the students were told that men perform better on math tests than women; in the second, the students were assured that despite what they might have heard, there was no difference between male and female performance. Both groups were given a math test. In the first, the men outscored the women by 20 points; in the second, the men scored only 2 points higher.

    Wonder what would have happened if they had made a third group: the students were told that women perform better on math tests than men?

    • In reply to #15 by therbert03:

      In a frequently cited 1999 study, a sample of University of Michigan students with similarly strong backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups. In the first, the students were told that men perform better on math tests than women; in the second, the students were assured that des…

      ” Wonder what would have happened if they had made a third group: the students were told that women perform better on math tests than men? “

      We are talking about mean performance here I suppose, but right tail performance is much more varied and men outperform women at about a 3 to 1 advantage. This is especially true in theoretical mathematics. There has not ever been a female Fields Prize ( bias, or not quality original work? ) winner and this, in and of itself needs explanation. Women can and do, though at a reduced rate, win Nobel prizes in every other field.

      So, performance bias is only part of the picture here.and we need to go deeper into this phenomenon.

  8. for the same reason there are so few women in tony abbot’s cabinet, and why there is no minister for science in his government: the world, even the western world, still has a long way to go in overcoming its misogyny.

  9. Any perceived gender difference in Mathematics seems to be more of a “Western world” problem. I have come across a wide array of research on gender differences in academics in Asia. It is true that women are still under represented in elite universities and research groups, their academic performance shows no real difference. For e.g. look at this study from 2009, “Mathematics Anxiety, Mathematics Performance and Academic Hardiness in High School Students”, Department of Studies in Psychology, University of Mysore [Source] (http://www.krepublishers.com/02-Journals/IJES/IJES-01-0-000-09-Web/IJES-01-1-000-09-Abst-PDF/IJES-01-01-033-09-012-Karimi-A/IJES-01-01-033-09-012-Karimi-A-Tt.pdf)

    Dependent variable————————————Sex——————Mean————————SD
    Mathematics anxiety———————————-Male——————63.81——————— 3.13
    ———————————————————–Female—————-69.41———————9.37
    Mathematics performance—————————Male——————-73.62——————–11.05
    ———————————————————–Female—————-73.40———————-9.31

    Academic hardiness———————————–Male——————51.32———————-7.17
    ————————————————————Female————–54.20———————–8.22

    • In reply to #18 by soulreaver:

      Any perceived gender difference in Mathematics seems to be more of a “Western world” problem. I have come across a wide array of research on gender differences in academics in Asia. It is true that women are still under represented in elite universities and research groups, their academic performanc…

      ” Any perceived gender difference in Mathematics seems to be more of a “Western world” problem “

      This study is still normally distributed and does not answer the basic question I had about the Fields Medal. I am not sure that this medal would be considered a Western word problem and we are not talking about mathematical averages. I assume the Fields Medal is open to all original theoretical work in mathematics and as I have said there is yet to be a female winner of this award. Bias? Then that would need explanation also.

      • In reply to #21 by Neodarwinian:

        In reply to #18 by soulreaver:

        Any perceived gender difference in Mathematics seems to be more of a “Western world” problem. I have come across a wide array of research on gender differences in academics in Asia. It is true that women are still under represented in elite universities and research g…

        It takes time for statistics to catch up. We cant really expect to wave a wand and expect 2 millennia of oppression to have no effect in modern world. I do think Shafi Goldwasser should have already been awarded the Fields medal. I accept, one medal isn’t going to level the playing field.

        • In reply to #23 by soulreaver:

          In reply to #21 by Neodarwinian:

          In reply to #18 by soulreaver:

          Any perceived gender difference in Mathematics seems to be more of a “Western world” problem. I have come across a wide array of research on gender differences in academics in Asia. It is true that women are still under represented in…

          The point is in many hard science areas women have caught up, though in a restricted manner, and have been awarded Nobel prizes. This has been going on since Marie Curie. The question remains as to the restricted representation in Nobel prizes and no representation in Fields Medals. Biology is reaching a quick parity in prizes and female representation, so am I to think that the two millennia oppression of women does not effect biology as much as mathematics? There is a variance here in need of an explanation.

  10. Custom and practice are probably the reason. If it’s not on the agenda from the very beginning attending University won’t occur unless you’re touched by genius.

    I’m from a background where it wasn’t even thought about. However, my cousin became an architect and one of our daughters gained a 2/1 in Biochemistry from Imperial College London.

    Her twin sister who was reading Life Sciences was advised on medical grounds to degrade from Trinity College Cambridge for a year. A place was held open for her for fourteen months but she had been so unhappy she couldn’t face it again.

    The Imperial College attendee gained an Erasmus Scholarship to study in Strasbourg for a year and got into the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm for a few months as well. She’s now waiting to hear about an internship.

    OOh! A couple of buttoms just flew off the front of my shirt.

  11. Why? Why?!? Because Bill Nye is nerdy and goes on TV! What woman would want to associate themselves with the likes of him! She might be considered gasp a nerd too! And we can never, I mean never, say bad things about a woman or think of women as “nerds”. Now geek-fashion, that’s another story.

  12. My impression is that the majority of women find the ‘hard’ sciences & associated subjects (engineering, technical pursuits) dull and boring. Could it be that (alleged) female ‘spiritual’ capabilities* and thought processes make it so?

    Inevitably the small numbers of women in technical/scientific jobs means they feel intimidated or disadvantaged which accounts for the resentment they feel toward male dominated occupations?

    • What’s the ratio of female-to-male practitioners— fortune tellers, aromatherapists, crystal healers, Tarot readers, palmists, etc?
    • In reply to #24 by Billy Joe:

      Could it be that (alleged) female ‘spiritual’ capabilities* and thought processes make it so?

      Well if you think that these “spiritual capabilities” are alleged and have no basis in science (I think so too) then they can hardly be the cause of anything can they?

    • In reply to #24 by Billy Joe:

      My impression is that the majority of women find the ‘hard’ sciences & associated subjects (engineering, technical pursuits) dull and boring. Could it be that (alleged) female ‘spiritual’ capabilities* and thought processes make it so?

      Inevitably the small numbers of women in technical/scientific j…

      Oh no! This is the awful truth! I’ve never heard a male declare that he is “spiritual”. I don’t know why it should be this way. Girls usually outperform boys while at school, but why they cling on to the “spiritual” aspect of modern life is beyond me!

  13. Roedy
    I talked with a women who was the only female in her year in engineering. She was very tough, but the hazing was vicious, not to mention the sexism. If you have a mostly male group, they gang up on the females and try to exclude them. Once the females form 50% then the behaviour changes.

    Something found with many of my friends who have entered male dominated professions. Many left due to sexism rather than lack of ability. One said it really wasn’t worth crying all the way there every morning and lying awake every night fretting.

    I suspect this problem will reverse slowly as more and more women enter scientific professions and the older men from previous generations with more outdated notions of womens roles die out.

  14. We keep very detailed statistics of things like pass rates including male to female ratio per subject. Our findings are that females are increasingly choosing sciences and maths and that there is NO difference at all in pass rates, grades or university choices. In fact last years best student, with top grades in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry was a girl.

    However one weird thing we in the science dept noticed was a marked tendency for the girls who succeeded to have come from moderately religious backgrounds. We found no such correlation with the boys. We concluded it couldn’t be god as a) doesn’t exist, b) there was no religious effect on boys performance and c) it remained independent of whether the girls still believed or not.

    We’ve observed it over a couple of years now as a dept (it can’t figure on official stats its too nebulous). And it seems to persist. Extreme religion and no religion seem to correlate with underperformance in girls only. Moderate religion somewhere just above nominal seems to correlate with successin girls only. Whether or not the girl in question remains a believer.

    We concluded moderate religion has ditched a lot of the old sexism (moderate RCs take the pill etc) of women as mothers but hasn’t, due to its nature, picked up the new sexism of women as body parts. Tho we are as confuddled as anyone by what we’ve seen.

  15. skeptic comment 11 One explanation is that women are not as interested in ‘things’ and how things work innately and therefore not as likely to enter the field. Their focus is more on people and relationships between them. I think I read that in one of Pinker’s books. It may not be true, but it shouldn’t be hearsay to think it’s a possibility.

    I’m fairly suspicious of Pinker has a researcher, males clearly have feelings and enter into relationships and I know a fair few female geeks into gaming etc. But I read an excellent book which I can’t recall now, which looked at lots of gender research and how it was reported and found that research showing differences were over reported whilst research showing similarities were under reported.

    I think the real answer is years of male domination of education and science will take a good few years to reverse.

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