The scientific community is not normally associated with a strict adherence to the mistakes of the past and of tradition. After all, the very nature of the process calls on scientists to be open to new conclusions, to let go of assumptions, and to aim for true objectivity. Yet, after decades of calls for equality, gender parity continues to elude the scientific community itself. By any measure, men continue to outnumber women in science. In some areas, there seems to hope for achieving a gender balance in the near future. Yet, in others, there’s little hope of seeing anything close to equality in our lifetimes without big changes.
A University of Melbourne study earlier this year of nearly 10 million academic papers from the past 15 years found that on average, it will take another 16 years before the number of women working on these papers is equal to the number of men. While less than ideal, 16 years is a brief moment in time when it comes to deep social change. However, the real heart of the issue is buried in the disparities between the data used to reach that average. A total of 115 scientific fields were examined, and in some, such as nursing and midwifery, women actually outnumber men. And in others, such as psychology and nutrition, the numbers are roughly equal. In 87 of the fields, however, men still outnumber women, who are appreciably catching up in a few of these disciplines, such as anthropology and microbiology. Which brings us to the heart of the problem. In areas like physics, mathematics, and computer science, however, men outnumber women by a factor of six. In physics, the study estimates that it will take 258 years for women to achieve parity at the current rate of change.
Even in the fields with near-parity, women were more likely to be credited as first authors of papers, a position normally filled by a junior researcher, than as the last author, usually reserved for a senior researcher in a position of leadership.
The researchers found this was about more than a lack of female science graduates in the past, with a system just waiting to catch up. Instead, they found that women are still being paid less in these fields, are less frequently invited to give academic talks, that their work is judged more harshly than male colleagues, and that fewer women are being trained by elite laboratories.
The authors of the paper suggest changes to the academic publishing and peer review process itself to include more female editors and reviewers, and call for providing better parental leave in related jobs, guaranteeing equal resources at work, affirmative action during hiring, and other steps.
A Yale study in 2013 found that professors at six major universities were more likely to hire a male applicant with the exact same qualifications as another female applicant. And the female applicant’s salary was set an average of $4,000 lower than the male applicant.
About one-fifth of all Ph.D.’s in the US are awarded to women. In physics, which repeatedly stands out as one of the worst offenders, only 14 percent of professors are women.
Yet, in a study of test scores worldwide, girls perform as well or better than boys on science aptitude tests. This is just one piece among a sea of evidence suggesting innate aptitude is not the issue.
Interestingly, according to that same paper, western nations with generally higher levels of gender equality were found to have more disparity in the sciences. The authors note that in other countries, the coinciding lack of social safety net drives women to choose a direct path to financial well-being, often a STEM career. In societies with a high level of gender equality, women feel more empowered to choose whatever they enjoy and believe they are well-suited for. In all nations, according to testing, girls do better in reading than boys, “related at least in part to girls’ advantages in basic language abilities and a generally greater interest in reading; they read more and thus practice more,” according to David Geary of the University of Missouri, one of the authors of the paper. In nations with gender equality and a social safety net, women feel more empowered to pursue fields outside the sciences, according to the researchers.
The educational patterns that lead girls to feel more comfortable in these fields themselves run quite deep. One aspect of this is the lack of female role models in STEM fields. There have only ever been two female physics Nobel laureates. In addition to an undeniable layer of gender bias already discussed, the gender disparity in science fields also has a lot to do with self-selection. Girls that have less confidence in STEM subjects, as demonstrated by research, tend to avoid these fields, even in countries with a high degree of overall gender equality. If there is no difference in aptitude, this points to internalized beliefs, gender bias among the leadership, or both, as the root causes of the problem.
This suggests that eliminating stereotypes and providing role models could help eliminate structural bias on both the supply and demand side of the equation. While steps like those suggested by the authors of the University of Melbourne study are long overdue, other research suggests that educational and cultural changes may be necessary to lay the groundwork for gender parity. This kind of change tends to be measured in decades rather than years. Yet, with self-awareness and proactive steps by the scientific community, surely we can do better than 258 years.