3 Reasons Why There are Fewer Women in STEM Professions: New Research Brings Hidden Barriers to Light

The fact that there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions has been a mystery for a long time. A. Hope Jahren of the New York Times writes that according to the most recent statistics released by UNESCO, “women’s enrollment in graduate education in the United States has been greater than men’s for each of the last 30 years.” But every year, female students drop out of STEM graduate programs in large numbers and are denied tenure at high rates when they do complete their studies and move into faculty positions. Women are also poorly represented as senior STEM leaders. Jahren notes that women do not drop out of graduate programs because of performance—there is no difference in GPAs between women who drop out and those who stay in. And women are not denied tenure because of a failure to publish. So what is going on? Several new important studies reveal reasons why women struggle to be successful in the sciences and point the way to changes that will make it possible for them to succeed in the STEM professions.

Reason 1: Research Funding Is Significantly Lower for Female Scientists

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of the Boston Globe reports that at big biomedical research institutions, including hospitals, universities, and other research institutions in New England, male scientists beginning their careers receive more than twice as much funding to support their work as female colleagues. A study conducted by a Boston nonprofit group, Health Resources in Action, found that male scientists beginning their careers as faculty researchers receive median start-up funding of $889,000 to establish their research labs compared to $350,000 for women. These funding packages are negotiated confidentially between researchers and department heads, and with no transparency, this pattern of gender bias had not previously been visible. Smaller start-up budgets make it harder for women to publish research and attract new grants, which impacts tenure and promotions for them.

Reason 2: Women Do Not Receive Tenure Credit for Their Publications

Justin Wolfers of the New York Times reports on research by Heather Sarsons at Harvard that compiled data on the publication records of young economists recruited by top universities over the past 40 years. Wolfers notes that the career path for economists is largely organized around tenure, which is based on “publish or perish” criteria. The study indicates that while women in the field publish as much as men, they are twice as likely to perish or be denied tenure. Sarsons’s research found that the only women who enjoyed the same rate of tenure success as men were those who published as solo authors. And here is where the study findings get interesting. Consider that most scholarly papers are coauthored and that economics is a male-dominated field, and note these findings:
  • When a woman and a man coauthor a paper, the man receives full credit toward tenure and his female coauthor receives no credit. It is assumed that only he deserves the credit.
  • Only when a woman publishes a paper alone or coauthors with another woman is she given full credit toward tenure.
The study found strong statistical differences and suggests this bias may account for female economists being twice as likely to be denied tenure.

Reason 3: Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is pervasive and underreported, creating an intimidating environment for young female scientists. Jahren, a female professor of geobiology, suggests that sexual harassment accounts for much of the huge dropout rate for young females in the sciences—along with a sense of isolation. Only recently has the lack of attention and responsiveness to claims of sexual harassment in several large academic institutions become public. Jahren notes: “From grad-school admission on up through tenure, every promotion can hinge on a recommendation letter’s one key passage of praise, offered—or withheld—by the most recent academic adviser. Given the gender breakdown of senior scientists, most often that adviser is a man.” Jahren suggests that often, in the face of harassment from a powerful male mentor, the only choice a student feels she has is to leave the profession to get away from him. Women feel that if they reject their mentor’s advances, they will not get a good recommendation and their career in science is over. What are the lessons learned from these new studies? We need transparency and accountability to interrupt and change these systemic patterns of bias. As long as they are hidden, and there are no consequences for unfair treatment, nothing will change.     Photo credit: Laboratory Science – biomedical by Bill Dickinson, on Flickr]]>

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