Where are the women in STEM?

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.




I Accepted a New Position in Soil Microbiology and Agroeconomy!

As my current post-doctoral position winds down in the Yeoman Lab in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, I am pleased to announce that I have accepted a post-doctoral position in the Menalled Lab in the Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Department! Dr. Menalled’s work focuses on agricultural weed ecology and management, particularly with respect to plant-plant interactions, changing climate (water and temperature changes), and now plant-microbe interactions!

I’ll primarily be working on a new two-year project that recently got funded through the USDA, entitled “Assessing the vulnerability and resiliency of integrated crop-livestock organic systems in water-limited environments under current and predicted climate scenarios”, but I’ll also be working collaboratively on several other similar projects in the lab.

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A little pre-job job training: I’m helping to make structures to keep rain out (rain-out shelters) of plots to simulate drier climate conditions.  Photo: Tim Seipel

My new responsibilities will include comparing agronomic performance and weed-crop-pathogen interactions between organic-tilled and organic-grazed systems, evaluating the impact of management and biophysical variables on soil microbial communities, and collaborating in modeling the long-term consequences of these interactions under current and predicted climate scenarios.  It’ll mean a lot more field work, and a lot of new skills to learn!  In fact, to help me study for my new job working with agricultural plants, my mentee and her friend made me flash cards:

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My mentee made my study cards so I could learn to identify common crop and weed species.

In addition to my new skills, I’ll be integrating my background in microbial ecology and bioinformatics, in order to study agricultural ecosystems more holistically and measure plant-microbe interactions.  In the same way that humans eat probiotics to promote a healthy gut microbiome, plants foster good relationships with specific soil microorganisms. The most exciting part is that I will act as an interdisciplinary bridge between the agroecology of the Menalled lab and the microbial ecology of the Yeoman lab, which will allow for more effective collaborations!



A Lady on the Streets and a Tiger in the Sheets of Paperwork.

Stereotyping is a social adaptation which evolved to help individuals classify stimuli, and to make judgements about new, untested stimuli.  After all, once a crocodile ate your family, it was conducive to your survival to assume that all crocodiles were probably dangerous.  However, social interactions and the human sense of self is so much more nuanced today that stereotyping is no longer a valid social tool.  People make assumptions about others based on just about any aspect of their person, and this has very real repercussions for diversity and interactions in the workplace, though here I am focusing on preconceived notions of women.

Women often face a paradoxical set of rules for their personality and productivity, especially at work.  Sometimes we are perceived as being too talkative and willing to talk over others, yet a recent study showed that men do most of the talking in work meetings, and are much more likely to interrupt a woman and than man.  Women are perceived by men to be worse at problem solving, as being unreliable if they are working mothers, and as being worse team leaders or executives.  This is contrary to other studies which show women to be more effective leaders.  In that study, women were more likely to take charge, undergo professional development, be honest, and were better at communicative and collaborative skills.  Many women who were surveyed attributed their success to having to work much harder than their male counterparts in order to prove their competence.

Women are encouraged to be more feminine from many angles, such as societal norms, or product marketing and advertising, often with the perception that you will be more attractive and better liked if you exhibit predominantly feminine qualities (warmth, nurturing, patience). However, the perception of working women used to be (in 1984) that they were more masculine, and prior to that working women were seen as selfish, unfeminine, and cold.  While in 2014, working women were categorized as equally feminine and masculine, being more “masculine” (self-confident, self-promoting) is shown to increase your chance of promotion.  Women are also often expected to do workplace “chores” or to be altruistic (staying late, helping other employees, etc. at no personal gain) in ways that men are not.

Another problem is the perception of working women and their relation to their family, which has improved in the last century but still lags behind the times. It’s still assumed that women will at some point temporarily or permanently leave work to raise a family, and working mothers are commonly perceived to be unreliable in terms of performance and time spent at work.  There can still be negative attitudes towards women who work instead of staying home to raise children, even though countless studies across the globe have shown that working mothers (who want to be working) have a more positive attitude, act as role models, and reduce gender inequality in future generations (data from here and summarized here).

This also ties into theories about whether or not a woman should earn more that her man (arguments which ignore same-sex couple earning dynamics). However, this leads to the idea that women don’t work to financially support their families, but to feed an ambition, yet why can’t both be true?  Men responded that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to them than women, and were less likely to respond that a job was the best way for a woman to be independent.  Thus, women’s careers are incorrectly perceived as superfluous to supporting a family and leads to the idea that we don’t need to make as much as a man, who may be supporting his family.

I can personally attest to this.  For several years, I was financially supporting my ex-husband during his arduous job search following the 2008 recession.  It didn’t bother me, as I was applying to graduate school and preparing for the financial tables to turn once I transitioned to a student stipend.  However, our financial roles came as a surprise to many people, in that the thought hadn’t occurred to them that I was the prevailing breadwinner.  This was again reflected in people’s perceptions about what we would do after I graduated.  When I announced my interest in finding a post-doctoral position on the opposite US coast or internationally, people were surprised that I would ask my man to give up his job, start over in a new place, and move away from his family.  However, I would have been expected to do the same if our career roles had been reversed.

Luckily, attitudes about female bosses are changing, even if our paychecks aren’t.  Today fewer men responded that they would prefer a male boss to a female boss, and more had no preference, than they did 50 years ago.  Only 23% of Americans polled preferred a woman, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss.  Gender preference was also linked to the gender of your current boss, so it likely that people are as unsure of change in hierarchy as they are of specific genders in charge.  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 penalized.  There is also the perception among women that a female boss 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).    Interestingly, companies with higher numbers of women in leadership roles consistently do better financially than companies with low number of women in leadership roles.

So how do we act more confidently without being arrogant or dominating, prove that we are great at math and science without being narcissistic, or have a family but not make a big deal of it?  The best way to change public misconceptions is to prove them wrong.  My advice, for women, for everyone: just be yourself.  Be your best self. Be friendly and open, but judiciously say “no” to demands on your time.  Remember who you are, where you want to go, and be comfortable in your skin. Feel free to be feminine, masculine, or whatever (just remember to be professional).  As you work your way through your career, you should remember to be humble; after all, there is always someone out there that knows more than you do, but you also need to remember that you are intelligent, hard working, and you deserve to be where you are.