It’s not news that women face a serious gender gap in the workplace. Women earn less than men and are underrepresented in upper-level positions. This is true despite the fact that women are highly educated; in 2009-2010, female graduates earned 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 62% of master’s degrees and 53% of doctor’s degrees. The gender gap trend is generally attributed to the idea that women tend to avoid competition, and the fact that women still bear more responsibility than men when it comes to domestic duties and child care.
The scientific community is no different. Women hold less than 25% of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs and make $0.86 for every dollar earned by a man. Now, this is more true in certain STEM fields; for example, only 27% of computer science jobs are held by women. The numbers for engineering are even worse – an abysmal 14% of employees in that sector are female. Things are a little less dismal in biology, my field – women make up 40% of the workforce in the physical and life sciences.
This data clearly shows that within the STEM fields, women are more likely to choose careers in biology or medicine over those in mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering. This is most likely due to the gender stereotype that women are bad at math. Obviously, women are not bad at math – an abundant amount of evidence has debunked that sexist notion - but the perception that they are persists. As a result, female students are less likely to be encouraged to pursue math-heavy educations and careers, and more likely to be steered away from the STEM fields altogether.
Of particular interest to me is the disparity between women pursuing an education in biology and the number of women who actually end up in senior biological research positions. Any graduate student in biology can tell you that among graduate students, women outnumber men; indeed, women earn 51% of new biology PhDs. But as you move up the biology research job hierarchy, the number of women shrinks dramatically: at the National Institutes of Health women account for 45% of postdoctoral fellows, 29% of tenure-track investigators, and only 19% of tenured senior investigators. At each successive stage of the traditional biology research career track, women are more likely than men to leave the academic path.
A major reason appears to be that women are more likely to be concerned about family issues. Scientific training takes a long time – four years of undergrad, five years of grad school, five years of postdoctoral training, and then seven years of being a research investigator before achieving tenure (these numbers are approximate – more or less time can be spent at each of these stages). Not to mention that during much of this time, scientific trainees are working long hours and making very little money. It is difficult for a woman in such a position to find the time, energy and money required by pregnancy and child rearing. Meanwhile, men tend to bear less child care responsibility and can instead devote their energies to science. This is not universal – many successful female scientists have families, and many successful male scientists are very much involved with their children – but the difficulty of balancing a demanding career in research with raising a family requires a lot of dedication to both. And so, despite overcoming outdated gender stereotypes and pursuing a STEM education, women choose to leave research in favor of careers that allow a more harmonious work-life balance.
Still, things are not as bad as they used to be. Sure, women only account for about 30% of new math doctorates, but that number looks positively rosy when you consider that in 1950, that number was 5%. And there are active efforts to close the scientific gender gap by funding female participation in science and providing options for women with families (working from home, part-time work, re-entry into the work force after raising children, work programs that ensure child care and health insurance, etc.). But the fact remains that progress is slow. One way to help remedy the problem would be to make the women who have achieved success in STEM fields more visible – if younger women see that it can be done, then they will be more likely to stay the path. It would be tragic if the late Myra Sadker turned out to be right: “If the cure for cancer was in the mind of a girl, we might never discover it.”