Women in Science: Myths and Facts

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 Science

In 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Training as a Scientist—Structural Barriers for Women

Molecular biologist Sara Clatterbuck Soper offers some insights into the ways that gender bias impacts training opportunities for women scientists. In an article in the New York Times, she explains that training in the sciences resembles the medieval apprentice system—scientists must spend a lengthy period of time training in the lab of an established principle investigator who has near-absolute authority in hiring. This apprenticeship is the pathway to a senior position, and eventually to having your own lab. The problem is the leader’s near-absolute hiring authority. Clatterbuck Soper cites a 2014 study that found that male scientists more often hire other men for coveted training positions. This study reported that the more prominent the men, such as Nobel Prize winners, the larger the gender gap in hiring. The elite male professors in the study employed 24 percent female postdoctoral researchers compared with 46 percent in labs run by women, and 36 percent female graduate students compared to 53 percent in labs run by women. Because training in the sciences requires high-quality apprenticeship and mentoring and so few women are lab leaders, there is a shortage of training opportunities for aspiring women scientists. Clatterbuck Soper explains that women represent half of the graduate students in biosciences but only 21 percent of full professors.

Good News

What is the good news in all of this? Did you notice that half of all undergraduate and graduate students in science are women? That is good news, and it debunks the myth that women are not interested in the sciences. What is needed now is a change in the biases, attitudes, and practices that limit opportunities for talented women in the sciences.   Photo credit: Image courtesy of Photokanok at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>

2 thoughts on “Women in Science: Myths and Facts”

  1. Hi Anne,
    LOVE your work on each blog! The current studies are remarkable – we know as scholars that current is important!
    Also, I love the personal note in your “abstract” in the email that lures us into your blog – such as “wait, I have good news….” that is a great connecting sentence that makes us feel as you are talking to ME, personally.
    Also, I love the stretch on topics that you are emerging into, such as this one. These are other related fields that involve us women.
    And, last, I love that you keep the blog short, references current and relevant, and you personalize your language enough so we know you are speaking with us about us!
    Keep up the great work!!!
    Kim D.

  2. Thanks for your supportive comments, Kim! I appreciate your enthusiastic feedback. I agree that it’s important for us all to stay current, and to be in tune with women in a broad range of fields and professions.
    Thanks again,


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