Why are there still so few women in the top levels of academic science despite equal numbers of women and men at the undergraduate and graduate levels? Let’s examine some myths and biases about women in the sciences and consider some facts that help explain the current situation. Then I’ll close with some good news!
Myths and Biases about Women in ScienceIn a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joan C. Williams and Jessi L. Smith note that there are distinct patterns of gender bias that affect female scientists:
- The first pattern, which is also a myth, is the belief that women are less competent at science. The impact of this bias is that two-thirds of female scientists in a recent study reported a double standard when going for promotions. They had to provide more evidence of their skills than their male colleagues did to be seen as equally competent.
- Another pattern is a familiar double bind for women leaders in many sectors—walking the “tightrope” of being seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable with very little room to maneuver between the two extremes. The authors quoted one of the women scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as explaining, “To get ahead here, you have to be so aggressive. But if women are too aggressive, they’re ostracized, and if they’re not aggressive enough, they have to do twice the work [to prove themselves].” Three-fourths of the women in one study reported experiencing this double bind.
- A third pattern and myth is that if you are a mother, you cannot also be a high-achieving scientist. Williams and Smith explain that the operating bias is that to be a high-achieving scientist, you must be “tirelessly and single-mindedly focused on research” without the distractions of a family. In a recent survey, two-thirds of the female scientists reported experiencing this bias, and female scientists are more than twice as likely to be childless than American women in general. Can it be that talented women are opting out of academic leadership positions in the sciences and choosing other careers because the price to stay in science is too high?