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On the lack of women in science: Numbers do matter

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Henrietta Swan Leavitt, even today an underappreciated female scientist, whose work led directly to the discovery of the expansion of the Universe (Image: Wikipedia)

There is an excellent article on the lack of women in science in the NYT by Eileen Pollack which is worth your time. Pollack herself was an embattled physics major at Yale at one point so she is quite well-versed in these issues. Using her own experience as a springboard she explores three of Yale’s female professors who talk about the hurdles they faced in their own careers. One of these is Jo Handelsman who conducted a rather well-known study last year about the way faculty members react differently when they encounter resumes from men and women which except for gender are the same. The study revealed that women applicants would routinely lose out when it came to essentials like space, funding and salary.

One of the take-home messages from the article is that gross numbers aren’t the only problem, and beyond a point they can even be a red herring. Higher numbers does not necessarily translate to lower barriers for entry and advancement. The article really hones in on two factors that Pollack thinks are responsible for the lack of women in science. One is self-esteem. It is clear that women’s treatment – both subtle and sometimes blatantly non-subtle – at the hands of their male peers, parents and society at large leads to low self-esteem and lack of self confidence in their ability to succeed in science. It starts from childhood when boys are encouraged to play with lego sets and girls are taught to dress up dolls. Many of the women interviewed – including Pollack herself – said that their professors in college did not encourage them to attend graduate school, even when they were doing as well as the men in their class. This lack of self-esteem feeds into “imposter syndrome”, the feeling that you are successful quite undeservedly and not on your own merits. Imposter syndrome is a serious problem that rightly sparks intense discussion and conferences, and it’s certainly something that many women feel.

The other problem is also well-known, and this is the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes as portrayed for example in The Big Bang Theory. Even today many women are consciously or unconsciously discouraged from studying especially the hard sciences by their parents and peers because these sciences “are for nerds and losers”. I do not think this problem is limited to girls – nerdy boys are also supposed to have trouble fitting in – but it’s definitely worse for girls.

I think one of the most interesting parts of the article deals with how perception of women in science can differ between cultures and countries. In general American and Asian men seem to have a problem regarding beauty and intelligence in a woman as co-existing qualities. European men seem to take a more nonchalant view. Meg Urry who is the chairman of Yale’s physics department recounts her experience:

“Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France “dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.”

This actually seems to me to be a very significant point. Most women do care about what men think about them, just as most men care about women’s views about them. If a woman thinks that a man will always look at her intelligence and her looks as mutually exclusive properties, she will feel much more pressure to pick between the two. Men have to consciously change this attitude. As an aside this unnecessary choice between beauty and brains may lead to the slovenly looks sometimes seen among scientists and noted by stereotypical portrayals and TV shows; in this case the scientists have probably made their choice.

It’s worth noting that discrimination against women in academia has persisted for hundreds or years, so even policies that make it favorable for them to enter fields like physics right now are not going to bear fruit until a few years down the line. I am always amazed that Princeton’s astronomy department did not enroll its first female student until as late as 1975. If you want to have an idea of how hard even very smart women in science had it, you should read Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s study of famous women scientists, including Nobel Prize winners. Highly accomplished women like Gertrude Elion, Emmy Noether and Gerty Cori had to play second fiddle to their less accomplished male counterparts even after publishing groundbreaking research. The example of Jocelyn Bell Burnell is well-known. Bell discovered the first pulsar while working for her advisor, Anthony Hewish. Ideally she should have shared in Hewish’s Nobel Prize but she didn’t, even when there was a place for a third recipient. The interesting side-story to Bell’s discovery concerns the brilliant and controversial astronomer Fred Hoyle who publicly supported Bell and denounced the Nobel Prize awarded to Hewish alone. In 1983 Hoyle’s colleague William Fowler received the Nobel Prize for ideas which Hoyle had significantly contributed to; Fowler himself expressed astonishment that Hoyle had not shared the honor, and again there was a place for a third recipient. While it’s hard to say for sure, one cannot escape the nagging doubt that Hoyle was being punished by the Nobel Committee for his advocacy of Bell and criticism of the prize. Thus, not only women but even men who support women in science can see themselves being formally and informally reprimanded.

The fact that there is a lack of women in science is almost certainly a function of policy and environments in higher level institutions. As the article indicates, many studies indicate that girls do as well as boys on math and science in high school and college. However there seem to be both subtle and non-subtle cues at the college level that discourage women from pursuing graduate studies, leading to the well-known “leaky pipeline”. Both male peers and male professors seem to be culprits according to the article, sometimes quite unintentionally so. Thus it is clear that the simple solution- having more female role models in academia – will certainly go a long way in helping boost women’s confidence and opportunities in the higher echelons of science. In this context the work done by female scientists and educators like Danica McKellar and Lisa Randall is highly commendable.

While the article does not address this, another important question deals with the disproportionate number of women in biology as compared to physics, math or computer science. While this has been held up by many as a matter of difference in aptitude, I think the explanation is much simpler. For a long time biology was regarded by men in physics and math – the reigning sciences of their time – as a “soft” science. Thus, and although I don’t have data to support this, I suspect that even if it was for the wrong reasons, biology started out with a lower barrier for women’s entry and consequently with more women in it. This led to a positive feedback effect that continues today, with women biologists on the faculty of top universities encouraging other young women to major in the discipline. This means that equivalent numbers of women in physics and engineering might accomplish the same thing. Chemistry is probably somewhere in between.

The importance of numbers was driven home to me on a personal level a few years ago when I attended a conference on astrophysics. Astrophysics is a field which has traditionally been male dominated, and in fact 90% of the attendees and speakers at the conference were men. After about 15 talks by men spread over two days a female speaker from a well-known researcher took the stage. She was both intelligent and attractive and her research was as interesting as the research described by the other speakers. To my horror, as the talk wore on I found myself analyzing her words, her mannerisms and the content of her talk with a fine toothed comb. I found myself being much more judgmental and critical of her than I would have been of equivalent male speakers. This was doubly shocking since I had always thought of myself as a fair and unbiased person who had been raised by a father and mother who were both accomplished college professors.

What was happening here? The simple explanation emerged when I thought of another conference – this time on biochemistry – that had been the last one I attended a few months ago. This time the pool of attendees and speakers included at least 50% women. None of the female speakers at that conference had produced the same overly critical behavior in me. I realized that the simple difference in numbers was making a big difference in perception. Simply being used to having women in a different field had changed my perception of them and I don’t see why it would do anything different for other men. A lack of women in astrophysics does not provide an excuse for my attitude, but it taught me to be much more watchful and to appreciate the importance of simply having more women role models in science. It was then that I decided that if I have a daughter I will try to get her interested in physics or math. The fact is that numbers do matter, and articles like Pollack’s provide useful road maps for how to improve them.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Heteromeles 9:38 pm 10/3/2013

    It’s odd, being a man who came from the life sciences and a graduate program where the majority of students were female. There, the reason for fewer women going on to professorships was simple: biological clocks. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. It’s just that, unless a grad student has children during grad school (and many did), they’re looking at starting a family in their late thirties or early forties, while working 50-60 hour weeks on jobs that pay 30% less than easier jobs in industry and don’t offer anything resembling job security for years.

    As I said, I don’t think it derides women’s intelligence that many of them looked at their career prospects, looked at their needs (or desires) for family, healthy relationships, and a healthy work-life balance, and decided that academia was not for them. Equally, I applaud the women (and men) who have made the increasingly difficult academic path work for them. In both cases, I would lay the choices down to a mix of intelligence and passion far more than bias.

    So please give women credit for being rational people making rational decisions, and please don’t hold academia up on a pedestal. Don’t get me wrong–academia is perfect for some people, both men and women. However, when making commentaries like this, honestly look at the job prospects for people (men and women) outside academia in a wide variety of fields, and ask whether getting out of academia isn’t a failure, but in many cases, a better option. It was for me.

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  2. 2. Archimedes 9:48 pm 10/3/2013

    Why are there so few women in science?
    The following answers this same question.
    There is a mean difference in mean IQ in favor of men of about 5 points. The further you go up the distribution the more skewed it becomes. There are twice as many men with an IQ of 120 plus as there are women, There are 30 times the number of men with an IQ of 170-plus as there are women. (Irwing 2006)
    Above a score of 700 on the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (Mathematics) there are only 7 per cent females against 93 per cent males (Benbow an Stanley 1983).
    IQ stands for intelligence quotient.
    Supposedly, it is a score that tells one how “bright” a person is compared to other people. The average IQ is by definition 100. Scores above 100 indicate a higher than average IQ. Scores below 100 indicate a lower than average IQ.
    Theoretically, scores can range any amount below or above 100; however, in practice,they do not meaningfully go much below 50 or above 150.
    Half of the population have IQ’s of between 90 and 110. Twenty five percent have higher IQ’s and twenty five percent have lower IQ’s.

    Descriptive Classification of Intelligence Quotients

    IQ Description % of Population

    130 plus Very Superior 2.2%
    120-129 Superior 6.7%
    110-119 High average 16.1%
    90-109 Average 50%
    80-89 Low average 16.1%
    70-79 Borderline 6.7%
    Below 70 Extremely low 2.2%

    Apparently, the IQ gives a good indication of the occupational group that a person will end up in, though not, of course, the specific occupation. In their book, Know Your Child’s IQ,
    Glen Wilson and Diana Grylls outline occupations typical of various IQ levels:

    140 Top Civil Servants; Professors and Research Scientists.
    130 Physicians and Surgeons; Lawyers; Engineers (Civil and Mechanical).
    120 School Teachers; Pharmacists; Accountants; Nurses; Stenographers; Managers.
    110 Foreman; Clerks; Telephone Operators; Salesmen; Policemen; Electricians.
    100 plus Machine Operators; Shopkeepers; Butchers; Welders; Sheet Metal Workers.
    100 minus Warehouse men; Carpenters; Cooks and Bakers; Small Farmers; Truck and Van Drivers.
    90 Laborers; Gardeners; Upholsterers; Farm hands; Miners; Factory Packers.

    Given the relative and absolute number of men in the higher IQ ranges, one would expect a disproportionate relative and absolute number of men in those occupations associated with the same. However, feminists, jurists, and the political body of the USA and other nations have unjustly attributed this disparity to intentional and or unintentional gender discrimination against women.
    Dramatic Orwellian Affirmative action and other overt and covert programs to unjustly give women those educational and employment opportunities that justly, because of both ability and effort, belong to men have resulted in significant decreases in productivity and efficiency through out the American economy and those of other nations which had adapted these authoritarian and Machiavellian precepts.
    Associated with the same are socio-cultural break down and decreased and/or stagnant average incomes, income growths, job security, the average wealth of all Americans, and well as the stagnation of and/or decline of other economic indicators.
    All male fitness and well being indicators are in a drastic decline.
    Though all aspects of male health and well being are in decline, there is no Council On Men and Boys nor a Federal Office On Mens Health while women now have at least seven.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:30 am 10/4/2013

    I would second Heteromeles – multi-year postdocs and temporary contracts don’t mix with biological clock.

    Many men quit academia because of raising a child, too. They found it too hard to support a family from the university salary. Some people have support of parents, savings etc. Others don’t. Or could not leave a wife and a child and go for a 2-year postdoc to a top university abroad. I am not sure if it is any consolation for women, though.

    Bottom line is that model of academic career went very wrong to pathological in recent years, both for males and females.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:07 am 10/4/2013

    “50-60 work weeks with less pay and negligible security”

    It would be interesting to check the incidence of stress-related disorders among pre-tenure scientists, both male and female. The results could be shocking.

    Link to this
  5. 5. CantorDust 10:30 am 10/4/2013


    It isn’t really about academia being pedestalized. It’s just questioning if women are being given a fair chance in a field they’d like to participate in. If there are fewer women in Physics/Maths because of domestic pressures as you say, then it wouldn’t explain why there are a much higher percentage of women in the life sciences or humanities.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 2:02 pm 10/4/2013

    I think as long as we continue to focus on specific fields instead of the broader context women will continue to suffer from lack of representation and recognition. One might ask, in what fields do women dominate? OK if dominate is too strong how about, historically in what fields have women had a greater representation than men? Ash, since you included experiences from Europe I suggest we consider those questions with a world perspective. I think we will discover that this situation of underrepresentation of women in science and our attitude toward female job applicants goes back to our ancient and fundamental attitude toward male dominance; the attitude that females are to serve man. That attitude can be still be seen today expressed everywhere. Just consider that it has not even been 100 years since women have had the vote in the US. Henrietta Leavitt, if she participated in the 1920 election, only had the opportunity to vote once in a presidential election before she died in 1921. Her whole life was a testament to the difficult struggle women had in a male dominated society.

    We do still need to make a special effort to encourage women to pursue careers in science and engineering but those are not the only fields that women need encouragement. Women have come a long way since Leavitt’s time but they still have a way to go before they enjoy equality of opportunity.

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  7. 7. curiouswavefunction 2:32 pm 10/4/2013

    I agree. The treatment of women has deep historical roots. Even more of a reason to double down on efforts to give talented women an equal say in the sciences and other disciplines.

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  8. 8. vijeescijo 11:22 am 10/5/2013

    Hi Ashutosh,

    I loved this article. I like the fact one of the young women who signed for a very advanced math/physics course was probably Indian/Pakistani.

    That was cool I thought.

    Link to this
  9. 9. vijeescijo 11:25 am 10/5/2013

    This is what I was talking about:
    One student — I took her to be Indian or Pakistani — said she arrived on campus having taken lots of advanced classes and didn’t hesitate to sign up for the most rigorous math course. Shaken to find herself the only girl in the class, unable to follow the first lecture, she asked the professor: Should I be here? “If you’re not confident that you should be here” — she imitated his scorn — “you shouldn’t take the class.”

    I wonder if she stayed/left.

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