Why Are There So Few Female Scientists?

Illustration for article titled Why Are There So Few Female Scientists?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. She also heads the gender and policy program at Columbia University. On Sunday, a piece she penned was printed in the Financial Times; it concerned a study on which she is the co-author, and it deals with women in the science, engineering and technology fields. The study, which will be published next month by the Harvard Business Review , shows that 41% of highly qualified specialists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders in these areas in the US are female. But! 52% of highly qualified women working for science, engineering and technology companies voluntarily leave their jobs, driven out by hostile work environments and extreme job pressures. A sexist culture drives more than half of qualified women away.

While feminist blog The F Word wonders if the study is a bit simplistic, Catherine Price writes on Salon: "Many U.S. science, engineering or technology companies are complaining about an overall lack of American talent — a situation that will only get worse if the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct in its prediction that from 2006 to 2016 jobs in these fields will grow 'five times faster than other sectors.'" Are we regressing to a time where science and technology are fields solely for men? Do we need more women like award-winning neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, whose delightful profile in the Independent is worth taking a moment to read. ("Many people like downhill skiing, or dancing, or wine, or sex, or food," says Greenfield. "Up until now, [pleasure seeking] has always been part of our lives but a polar opposite to seeking meaning. I fear we are shifting too much in favour of the literal, the hedonistic, the here and now, and losing meaning, context and content in favor of process... There's no point of living life if it's not fun.")

But part of the problem could be the image that scientists have in our collective unconscious. Researchers have found that the stereotype of mathematicians as geeks discourages students from studying math. A study by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at the London Metropolitan University discovered:

Nearly all participants, both math-friendly students and those who steer clear of equations, think of a mathematician as a white male with white hair, who is obsessed with the number-laden subject to the exclusion of any social life. For instance, participants labeled Albert Einstein and John Nash (portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind") as lacking social skills and as weird or not normal.


So you already know what I'm going to ask you: If we're living in a culture where little girls think being called "sexy" is the ultimate compliment, where girls may have damaged mental health from advertising and media, where students of both genders don't want to study math because it is geeky, what does our future look like? As the rest of the world makes leaps and bounds in science, engineering and technology, we're perfecting a reality television. (Oh, and don't forget: The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Canada, France, Iceland, The Netherlands, Bangaldesh, Ireland, Poland, Liberia and Argentina have all had female presidents or prime ministers.)

Focus On The Female Talent In The Backyard [Financial Times]

Sexist culture drives Women Out Of Science [Times Of London]

Sexist culture drives Women Out Of Science [The F Word]

Where Are All The Women Going? [Salon]

Susan Greenfield: The Girl With All The Brains [Independent]

Mathematicians Still Seen as Einsteins [Live Science]

[That picture is not of Sylvia Ann Hewlett or Susan Greenfield. It's a Russian post doctoral student working with DNA samples. Finding an image of a female scientist was difficult. Google image "doctor" and you get tons of images of men in white coats and a few images of female porn stars dressed as nurses to "play" doctor. Go figure.]

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I'm a female scientist, tenured, and I run my own research lab at an

academic institution. I'm one of only a very few women faculty at my

institution. Why? Contrary to what one poster suggested, the pipeline

has been full for at least 20 years now——-50 % of my fellow PhD

students almost 20 years ago were also women. So why aren't we all

running labs now?

Based on my own experience, I think women have to be tougher, smarter,

and harder working to survive at the top. Yes, women faculty are

generally viewed as bitchy etc, but this is just name-calling and

doesn't have any huge effect.

The real problem in my view is that men can slide by without being

perfect, but women aren't given any slack. Male faculty can be

dysfunctional alcoholics who miss faculty meetings, blow off lectures,

dress like derelicts, molest students, and publish sporadically. But

women have to toe the line in every respect if they expect to be


There's very little discrimination against women early in their career

as scientists, but when they start competing with men for that first

faculty position, and especially for the rarer tenure and grant awards,

the overt and nasty sexism comes out of the woodwork. Women have to

very careful of how they dress, and to never mention their family if

possible. Also, you have to worry about professional relationships you

develop. If you collaborate with a male colleague (or even have a male

student), expect to hear whispers all the time that you're sleeping

together! But avoiding collaborations and students because of this can

hurt your academic work.

Obviously, it also makes some difference that women physically have to

have children and also often end up taking care of them. I myself went

through my tenure review and divorce at the same time, all while taking

care of my two small children. But in my opinion the discrimination I

encountered simply because I was a woman was far harder to deal with and

overcome. I could push myself and get by on 2 hrs sleep per night, but

it was harder to influence the anti-diluvian attitudes of senior

faculty. I've had heads of departments tell me to my face that I

wouldn't be able to handle a faculty research job because I have a

family. Although I had the pleasure of proving them wrong,

unfortunately my success hasn't changed their minds—-instead they just

regard me as an exception and continue to generally view women as not as

able as men.