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Cutting the Gender Scissors


Women are good scientists and good networkers. Good networking capacity is important in science. Yet only a few women in science ever make it to professor.

Science's Next Wave has published a lot on the women-in-science issue. We've even dedicated a whole index page to the subject. Each of these articles uses a different approach, but they've all come to a common observation: that women are underrepresented at the scientific top, despite the fact that more than half of the (European) student population is female.

The European Report on Science and Technology Indicators shows that the distribution of men and women follows a scissors?shaped trend towards higher positions (see Figure 1). Every female professor is matched by 9 male colleagues.

Data from the Third European Report on Science and Technology, 2003,

So where are all the talented women going? Apparently not moving on to careers in business or government. Data from the Interparliamentary Union show that only 15% of people working in parliaments worldwide are women. Likewise, the Catalyst reports that only 10.2% of the seats in top management of large firms is taken by women. Given that (according to the American Central Intelligence Agency) the average global male/female ratio is 0.99, the question is: why aren't more women working in higher positions, whether it's in science or somewhere else?

I've always wondered whether it has something to do with networking. So I did some research to see if I could bring the influence of gender differences in networking to the surface. As a result, I've come up with some advice--for both men and women--to make sure that networking is not an obstacle to women's rise.

Data from the 2000/2001 British General Household Survey. From: "Getting on or getting by - Women, social capital and political participation", by Vivien Lowndes. Paper presented at the Gender and Social capital conference, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, May 2003

Networking Performance

A survey of 7857 households in England considered several aspects of the quality of networking. Figure 2 shows their findings on activity in social networks. Women, the study found, are generally more in touch with friends and relatives than men. Apparently they know how to network. A more recent Canadian study (see Figure 3) shows that there's hardly any difference in the size of men's and women's networks. So it seems that men's and women's networking potential is similar, even slightly to the advantage of women.

Where networking differences become apparent is when it comes to achieving top positions. Three of the apparent differences have clear underlying causes; by addressing these causes we have an opportunity to smash the gender scissors.

Data from "Gender, Knowledge, and Social Capital." E. Gidengil, E. Goodyear-Grant, A. Blais, and N. Nevitte, 2004

Different Environments

So where are the women? They're pretty much everywhere else, as Figure 4 indicates. Women study pretty much every field at a higher frequency than men?every field, that is, except the more technical ones.

Data from Third European Report on S&T indicators 2003 Luxembourg: Office for OfficialPublications of the European Communities, 2003,

Here's one important difference in the environments of networking men and women. Men and women tend to network in different circles; even when it comes to non-professional networking activities, men have an advantage. Where men are generally active in politics and professional associations, women are more often found in care-related organizations. Men, it seems, use even non-professional networking opportunities to advance their careers.

These environmental differences mean that women who want to make it to the top have two choices: They can either learn to function as minorities in circles dominated by men, or they can stay within a female environment.

Borrowing Social Capital

The first choice, though, requires persistence. Both sexes have to fight to make it to the top, but women in male environments always have to push a bit harder.

One of my previous articles dealt with "social capital," pointing out that getting it usually takes time to accumulate. This is especially true for minorities and thus for women at the higher levels of science. The well-known "old-boys network" makes it hard for women to get in, which prevents them from gaining social capital. This process is not typical for the women-in-science issue, but applies to any field where minorities are involved, be they black people in a white environment or young people in an old one. The challenge for any minority is to find a way to deal with this role.

Burt¹ has proposed an interesting solution: borrow social capital. In his study, all of the women among the 3000 top managers in the US appeared to use this strategy on their way to success. Instead of using fairly odd friends, they found a sponsor within the "old-boys network;" with the access provided by the sponsor, they can build professional relationships.

Staying Close to Home

The second option - choosing a woman rich environment - generally means that women stay where they are. In that case women don't need to borrow social capital; most have easy access to an "old-girls network."

Yet these environments are hard to find in science, and because increasing the representation of women in male environments takes time--decades earlier than years--this is more of a long term option.

Leadership role models

The Basket Example

As a test, Bandura let people throw pieces of paper in a waste paper basket. To some test persons he mentioned hypothetical scores of professional basketball players before they threw. People who were exposed to this information performed better on this task.

Leadership is considered (by men and women) as an attribute more typical of males than females, as Rodler and Kirchler² stated. This is something inherent to our culture, and thus fairly hard to change. In 1986 Bandura developed his self efficacy theory , which states that belief is the basis for success. Linking this theory to the current cultural situation yields four steps that could increase the acceptance of you--and your female colleagues--as leaders in the world of science (Figure 5).

Based on "Gender differences in beliefs about leadership capabilities:Exploring the glass ceiling phenomenom with self-efficacy theory" byM.J. McCormick, J. Tanguma, A. Sohn Lopez-Forment, KravisLeadership Institute leadership review, 2003

Step one: find role models and learn from them. In your early career phase, you could pick a female leader ? a nearby professor, the head of an organising committee, or the chairwoman of an association - and help them with everyday tasks. If you can get close to this role model, all you have to do is observe and learn.

Step two: practice being a leader yourself wherever you can, especially when the consequences of making mistakes are small. Develop experience as a leader by taking the initiative in hobby clubs, chairing informal organisations, and leading local groups.

Step three: the more after you practice, the more experience you gain. This experience forms the basis for leadership roles with more responsibilities. You can use this experience to prove that you're ready to take the lead in national organisations and funded projects. Being the figurehead of such initiatives does not only enlarge your network but also increases your self-confidence. This belief in yourself is the start for changing perspectives in your (male-dominated) environment.

Step four: this is not one you can take consciously. As a result of your higher self-esteem, your environment starts recognising your leadership capacities. And because of your experience and large network, you'll be invited to take the leader role more often: you've become an established and accepted leader.


Men perceive negotiation as a ball game or a wrestling match, whereas women compare negotiating with going to the dentist. In her book "Women Don't Ask", Linda Babcock states that men initiate negotiations about four times more often than women. Additionally women expect on average 30% less from the outcome of any negotiation (and therefore ask for less and settle sooner). Finally, 20% of adult women say they never negotiate. Especially when it comes to negotiating about starting salary; men do it on average eight times more often than women.

Even when a woman enters a man's world ? whether using borrowed social capital or whatever means--she still has to climb to that top position, and that requires negotiation. How does one learn these skills? Just as with leadership, it is a matter of practicing: whether it's in the market, buying a car, or during your study. A good start would be on holidays at local markets. During my holidays in Turkey ? where negotiating is mandatory ? I tried it out myself. I came across a nice T-shirt I desperately wanted to buy. Instead of paying the asking price, I negotiated. The vendor did likewise. Eventually we settled for a price that was five times lower than the initial one.

So borrowing social capital, creating women-rich environments, changing perspectives, and negotiating is all that is needed to make it to the top. Don't think it is impossible, because it's not: People have done it before. It might not all come tomorrow, but it certainly will the day after.

¹ R.S. Burt, The gender of social capital, in: Rationality and Science, 1998

² C. Rodler, E. Kirchler, E. Holzl. Gender stereotypes of leaders: an analysis of the contents of obituaries from 1974 to 1998. In: Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 2001