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Six Ways to Keep Women in Science

First the good news: More women are getting Ph.D.s than men, capping a decades-long march toward parity. And it's not just in the humanities and social sciences. They also outnumber their male colleagues in the biological and health sciences. But the bad news is that they're less likely to enter and remain in scientific careers. Beyond the doctoral level, the ratio of women to men starts to dip below one.

A new report tries to explain why that's happening. The cosmetics company L'Oreal, in conjunction with AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), conducted an online survey of 10,000 U.S. doctoral scientists about barriers to a successful career and why some people might have left science altogether. Some 1301 researchers (57% women) replied. Although both sexes complained about the struggle to find jobs (about 70% were academics) and obtain research funding, women were much more likely to cite more abstract barriers to success, such as the difficulty of balancing career and family obligations or access to good mentors.

But back to the good news: A panel of scientists who discussed the report yesterday in Washington, D.C., offered some advice about how women could improve their career prospects. They are:

Search for a mentor. Having a helpful mentor seems to make a bigger difference in career success for women than for men, according to molecular biologist Joan Steitz of Yale University. And although it may still be harder to find female role models in fields like computer science and engineering, they exist if you look hard enough.

Negotiate your pay. This is one area where women could learn from their male colleagues, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physics professor Sara Seager. Because the truth is, sometimes men are just better at asking for more. Seager remembers feeling baffled by a new female professor who came to MIT without negotiating her salary at all. "If she had negotiated just $5000 more [a year] ... over her entire career at MIT, that would be college tuition for both of her children."

Know your Title IX coordinator. Title IX isn't just about women in sports. The 1972 U.S. law guarantees women equal access in all educational activities supported by the federal government, including research. And every institution must have at least one employee monitoring compliance.

They also have some advice for institutions trying to attract and retain women:

Don't rely on complaints—use audits. Women are already guaranteed plenty of protection against bias, but they're often hesitant to file a formal complaint if they feel they're being treated unfairly, according to Shirley Malcom of AAAS. Rather than waiting to receive a complaint, institutions should make rooting out gender discrimination part of the regular auditing process, Malcom says.

Test for unconscious bias. Good-hearted people may not be aware of their prejudices, according to Steitz. A 1997 study found that a woman applicant for a postdoctoral fellowship in Sweden had to have published three more papers in major journals, or 20 more in minor journals, to receive the same peer-review rating as a man. To counter this potential effect, says Steitz, federal grants managers should take tests to measure hidden bias.

A little goes a long way. Not every change has to be major. Simply rescheduling the time of a colloquia meeting to avoid when schools let out could mean that fewer women have to choose between their children and their careers, says Seager. Although a man sometimes faces the same choice, the survey says that a woman scientist is more likely to have school-aged children and less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse or a spouse who isn't also a scientist.

*This article has been corrected. The study about unconscious bias in women postdoctoral fellowship applicants is from 1997, not 1993.