Science is under threat, and people around the world are mobilizing in defense. But if we want to support science, we must also stand up for what makes it great—diversity. Some of our biggest discoveries, like the Higgs boson and the human genome sequence, were possible because of the collective work of many scientists from different backgrounds. A diversity of ideas is essential for science and for addressing the world’s most pressing problems. However, to promote diversity, we must confront the structural inequalities and discrimination that are prevalent in science and society.
We focus on women in science today—International Women’s Day—and every day because women are the largest underrepresented group in science. Women make up approximately half of the world’s population but only 28 percent of its researchers. Institutionalized forms of discrimination such as unequal pay for equal work, inadequate family leave policies, inflexible work schedules, gender norms and workplace harassment often prevent women from entering and remaining in scientific careers. These obstacles mean that we are never just scientists; as women, we must negotiate sexist institutions and discrimination from home to work.
We unite as women in science, but we are never just women. Our gender is only one aspect of our social identity and status. All people have multiple intersecting identities based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, disability status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, and socioeconomic background. Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1989) theory of intersectionality helps us understand that these socially constructed yet significant categories impact every aspect of our lives—from where we live to what we do for a living. If we only focus on gender in science without explicitly addressing all forms of privilege and inequality, we fail to combat the institutional barriers and biases that push different groups of women out of science.
The gender and racial gaps in scientific professions illustrate the need for greater inclusion at all levels. While white men and women each comprise approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population, white men hold 49 percent of science and engineering occupations compared to 18 percent of white women. The percentages are also low for black and Hispanic women, who make up 7 percent and 8 percent of the population respectively, but hold only 2 percent of science and engineering occupations.
It is not just the numbers that are of concern. Research points to biases and barriers for women in STEM beginning in elementary school and lasting well into senior-level positions. Early on, girls are discouraged from pursuing science by teachers and peers, and as a result, often opt out of STEM studies. Overt and unconscious gender biases continue to affect women in undergraduate science classes, where female students are perceived to be less knowledgeable than male students. Male faculty tend to train and employ fewer female graduate students and postdoctoral researchers than their female colleagues. Women and underrepresented minorities are less likely to receive mentorship across disciplines than white men. Women also publish less, possibly due to “the Matilda Effect” in which male-authored abstracts are judged to have higher scientific quality than the same female-authored abstracts. Women are also less frequently cited, the currency of merit in academia.
In the classroom, women of color have their authority challenged, competency questioned, and scholarly expertise discredited. Recent research highlights how biases against women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are particularly strong in STEM environments compared to other occupational fields. Thus, women scientists simultaneously face sexism, racism, and homophobia among other forms of discrimination from both genders in the workplace. Science cannot solve its diversity problems by simply attempting to hire more women without addressing all biases.
The problems we describe are not new. Women have been working for recognition in science for centuries. Many of their scientific contributions remain unacknowledged and undervalued. The exclusion and erasure of women’s scientific achievements deprives aspiring scientists of female role models and perpetuates sexist stereotypes about what a scientist looks like. Acknowledging the little known roles of women in science is also necessary to uncover the embedded racism and sexism that continues within narratives of the scientific enterprise.
For instance, Dr. James Marion Sims, regarded as the father of modern gynecology, experimented on unanesthetized enslaved women to develop a surgery still used to treat women today. The women in Dr. Sim’s studies are largely erased from the historical record. We are complicit in the whitewashing of history as we celebrate his accomplishments and fail to acknowledge the exploitation, violence, and systematic inequalities that made this scientific innovation possible. The reality is that science is riddled with sexism and racism and it will never have the best and brightest scientists as long as we fail to acknowledge and address these issues.
Fighting for social justice is not outside the role of scientists nor is it something that we can sideline until science is no longer under threat. Defending the rights of minority groups and eliminating all forms of discrimination are essential for our work. Advocating for science requires us to advocate for women. Advocating for women means advocating for gender and racial justice. It means advancing immigrant, disability, and LGBTQIA rights, religious freedom, and challenging all forms of discrimination and inequality.
There is a need to promote a diverse and inclusive scientific community that applies progressive scientific solutions to local and global challenges. There is a need to commit to equity in science and continue to create an environment in which women can thrive in their scientific studies and careers. There is a need to facilitate a positive space for women scientists to organize themselves, lead, share without fear, build support, learn tools to navigate our unique challenges, seek and provide mentorship, and push the scientific enterprise forward. There is a need for a platform to publicize women’s scientific accomplishments and stories so that we are not “hidden figures” anymore. That's why organizations for women scientists continue to be necessary today.
We are never just scientists; we are diverse women and activists dedicated to promoting social justice.