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Mixed messages about women’s representation in science—and a missing piece of the picture

Elaine Weyuker earned her master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, in an academic building that lacked a women’s bathroom. She went on to receive the first Ph.D. in computer science that Rutgers University awarded to a woman, and to become the first woman hired in the computer science department at New York University and as a fellow at Bell Labs. 

Now a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a professor at both the University of Central Florida and Sweden’s Mälardalen University, she has seen little improvement in her field’s dismal representation of women since her student days, she told the attendees at a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) symposium about women’s underrepresentation in science last month. Throughout her career, she has had no or few female colleagues.

The event where she recounted her experiences is part of a study slated to produce a follow-up to the influential 2007 NASEM report Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Weyuker served on the committee of 17 prominent female researchers and one man that produced it. (I was the writer on that project.) True to its title, Beyond Bias and Barriers identified major, systemic impediments to women entering and advancing in the ranks of tenure-track science faculties at research universities and proposed institutional and cultural changes to overcome or at least modify them.

Have things improved since then? The symposium offered a mixed response. Weyuker said that, for her field, “12 years have gone by and things haven’t changed.” Other speakers, however, gave more hopeful reports of progress in a number of disciplines, and of strategies that are working to increase numbers of female science and medical students, faculty members, and others, and could be applied more widely. The answer then—unsatisfying as it may be—is that change, though real, is uneven and much remains to be done.

Mapping progress

Prominent among the stumbling blocks enumerated in Beyond Bias and Barriers was prejudice defining women as unsuited to scientific research. Beyond Bias and Barriers also flagged institutional features and practices that ignore the collision of the graduate school, postdoc, and crucial early faculty periods with women’s prime childbearing and child-rearing years. Family responsibilities thus severely disadvantage many mothers in the grueling competition for independent researcher status.  

Since the report, awareness of institutional hindrances and previously unacknowledged prejudices has grown dramatically, as have programs to counter them. Symposium speakers discussed a variety of efforts to make institutions more family-friendly and the hiring and tenure processes more inclusive that have produced palpable results at a number of places.

But even so, female representation, especially for women of color, still falls short of many participants’ hopes. Weyuker’s field of computer science ranks among the worst in terms of female participation, along with others like mathematics, physics, and some branches of engineering. On the other end of the spectrum, women now earn a majority of Ph.D.s in fields such as biomedical sciences and marine and environmental sciences and account for approximately half of entering medical students. A fascinating 2015 study—cited by symposium speaker Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton of the University of California, Berkeley—suggests how stereotypes like those identified in Beyond Bias and Barriers continue to exercise influence and may contribute to the differences among disciplines. The study identified a correlation between poor representation of women and underrepresented minorities in a discipline and the belief among the discipline’s members that success requires innate brilliance—a quality, the study’s authors note, that is generally absent from stereotypes of women and people of color.

Across nearly all fields, the proportion of women declines the higher one goes up the academic ranks. If the goal is something approaching equal representation of the sexes, especially among senior faculty, there is still a way to go—and in fields like Weyuker’s, quite a long way indeed.  

Still, a week after the symposium came an encouraging sign, as Karen Uhlenbeck, one of Weyuker’s contemporaries who decades before had struggled to find a faculty post, became the first woman awarded one of the most prestigious honors in mathematics, the Abel Prize. In the broader sweep of history, furthermore, women’s march toward equality in academic science and changes in attitudes toward their scientific ability have indeed been pretty impressive. Two decades before Beyond Bias and Barriers, when I was writing a book on gender, the question then roiling the academic world was not how more women could reach full professor in various sciences, but how to account for boys’ higher average performance on the math SAT. An entire scientific literature examined how brain lateralization, hormones, and the division of labor among our hunter-gatherer ancestors made this discrepancy inevitable. (No, I’m not making this up.) You might not have heard of this test-score gap lately. That’s because it vanished once high school girls, on average, began taking as many math courses as boys. Today’s and tomorrow’s rising numbers of women in science will likely continue both driving and benefiting from growing appreciation of women’s scientific abilities and accomplishments.

A parallel trend

Something else was also happening during those years of the test-score gap, which the symposium left unaddressed: changes in the academic labor market and employment trajectories for Ph.D. recipients. The percentage of Ph.D. scientists working in academe is steadily dropping. As my colleague Katie Langin recently reported, just about as many Ph.D. scientists in the United States now work in the private sector (42%) as in academic institutions (43%), with the public sector and “other” endeavors making up the remainder.

Yet, the symposium and ongoing NASEM study seem to focus primarily on academic institutions. Significant though the prospects of women in university faculties are for both the students they teach and the scientists themselves, we know far less about the experiences and opportunities of the women scientists working in industry, from startups to giant multinationals; in government labs and agencies; in media organizations, journal publishers, law firms, hospitals, consultancies, schools, professional associations, and the countless other places where scientists pursue careers.

What challenges do these women face? The day before Uhlenbeck’s prize was announced, the American Economic Association released a survey showing that nearly a third of the female respondents who work outside academe report experiencing discrimination in promotion, compensation, and professional development opportunities. Women with dependents report more discrimination than those without.

How does this compare with the experience of nonacademic scientists? How many, as Weyuker did, are making a solitary way in their career fields? How many are finding hospitable conditions for their talents and energies? Which fields and industries are best and worst for women? The majority of women scientists, who will not be professors, need to know.

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