The “Women in Science” debate has been raging on in a variety of ways, from wondering why there aren’t more of us to whether or not a mixed-gender lab is too distractingly sexy. The amount of women in science, the pay gap, and career advancement potential varies wildly by country and research field. So does public opinion about whether or not there is an actual problem, what might be causing it, and what we might do about it. In 2011, women only earned about 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees, down from its peak of 37% in 1985. The percentage of women earning graduate-level degrees has been slowly increasing since 1970, with 28% of the masters degrees and 20% of the doctoral degrees (Ph.D ,s) being earned by women in 2011. Women make up roughly 41% of total STEM doctoral degrees earned; however, women only fill 24% of STEM jobs in the US, and only 25% of STEM managers are female. Universities are only slightly better, with 28% of tenure-track faculty positions being held by women in the US, but only 12% worldwide.
This debate isn’t just specific to science in academia, but a lack of diversity in the educational system can have interesting effects. First, a lack of female (or other demographic) role models means that female children are less likely to go into that field: if they don’t see anyone paving the way, then the idea that they might also become a physicist doesn’t occur to them or doesn’t sound like an attractive career. While boys and girls are taking math and science in equal numbers in grade school, this doesn’t translate into the same number of men and women in math or science undergraduate fields, where women only earn 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985, and only 11.5% of software developers are female. Part of this is the perception that men are better than women at math and science, even though women have been shown to be better at writing computer code than men, but only when reviewers did not know the coder was female. Science faculty, regardless of their own gender, were more likely to hire a male applicant over an identical female applicant, and offered them several thousand dollars more starting salary for the same position. The male applicant was perceived as more competent, more hirable, and more in need of mentoring than the identical female applicant.
Another problem is that women are less likely to have people sponsoring or advocating for them in the work place (available here and discussed here). People with sponsors were 30% more likely to be promoted or given raises. As of 2014, only 23% of Americans polled preferred a female boss, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss, which may account for the lack of support women find in climbing the ladder. Surprisingly, women were 13% more likely to want a male boss, which may be a reaction to fierce competition to become the “token woman” at a company or working group, as women or other minorities who advocate hiring another woman or minority are rated poorly. There is also the perception among women that a female boss is less likely to promote you over herself, as she doesn’t want competition, known as Queen Bee Syndrome. This too, has been refuted, as women are shown to be more likely to mentor and develop female employees lower down on the ladder (discussed here).
Finally, one of the reasons that women are not found in some fields or levels of management, which no one really wants to discuss, is the disparaging levels of sexism and harassment we may face. For female graduate students, post-docs, or new professionals, sexual harassment at work can increase attrition rates. Due to the close nature of the working relationship of graduates/post-docs with their advisors, many students feel they can’t report inappropriate behavior (of any nature) for fear of losing their position in the program. As a student, you need your advisor to approve everything, from the courses you have taken to manuscripts before publishing, and a poor relationship with your advisor can make it nearly impossible for you to complete your work. Tenured faculty who have been accused of harassment also seem to be acting with impunity, as it can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to fire a tenure professor (in the absence of proven criminal activity). In field situations, sexual harassment can take on a more sinister tone, as you may be the only female in a group and depending on your abuser to keep you alive.
So what can we do about this? Because this isn’t just a woman’s issue. That’s what I discussed here because I have some expertise with being a woman, but in general, diversity in society is a hotly contested issue. It really shouldn’t be, increasing the diversity in a group can increase performance and improve decision making (discussed here). Having a diverse group of people (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, education, economic status, birth order, pets owned, places lived, live experiences learned from..) gives the group a wider range of previous experience to lean upon when solving problems. It’s why we evolved into a social society in the first place- it was better for survival.
The first step to solving our diversity issues is to let go of preconceived notions about yourself or others. Stop thinking about life-related obstacles to your career trajectory, such as whether you want kids or having to relocate your family, and stop assuming that others might be better or worse at their job because they have chosen a certain family dynamic. Stop thinking you might not get a job because of what the employer might thinking about women as bioinformaticians, and in turn stop stereotyping applicants based on your ideas of who they are and of what they are capable.
The second step is to be a role model, and to actively engage the next generations of computer scientists, astronauts, microbial ecologists, astrophysicists, and educators. As a woman in science, it’s important to me to encourage other women and girls in science, because I would not be here today without the positive female role models I have had. It’s important to support programs that encourage different minorities to achieve in fields where they are underrepresented, because it benefits all of us.
And the third step, perhaps the most difficult. is to have an open conversation about the difficulties and prejudices facing women, or anyone, in different science fields. Often people can fall back on stereotypes or be sexist or racist without realizing it, and it’s important to speak up and have a conversation with them to come to a better understanding of how to get along. When someone’s words or actions are creating a hostile work environment, tell them directly, as well as their supervisor or relevant reporting agency as needed. If we don’t address the problem on an individual basis, then individuals will never amend their actions. In addition, it’s important to validate the feelings of and listen to someone who has been the victim of harassment or a crime (of any nature), because it’s important to make them feel safe and believed. Often, victims of sexual harassment state that not having their reports believed or treating seriously by supervisors was worse than the harassment itself. And personally, I have plenty to do on a daily basis without having to deal with casual or institutional sexism. Working women are simply too busy quietly doing well at ours jobs to deal with men’s feelings about us.