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A Changing Landscape for Women in Academic Science

SMG prof: no gender discrimination in math-related sciences, problems elsewhere.

by Leslie Friday
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woman mathematicianA new study finds that female PhDs in most math-related sciences do not experience gender discrimination, but that women academics in life sciences and psychology are less likely to get tenure or promotions than their male counterparts.iStock via Boston UniversityWomen looking for equal pay, recognition for hard work, and career advancement might be wise to study engineering, mathematics, or computer science. The idea seems contradictory, considering frequent reports that the playing field isn’t level for women academics. But research by Shulamit Kahn, a Boston University School of Management associate professor in the markets, public policy, and law department, and three colleagues has discovered that women faculty working in math-intensive science fields, geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics/computer science, and physical science (GEEMP), now feel just as fulfilled professionally as their male counterparts, despite still being underrepresented. Their research has found that while gender discrimination formerly was “an important cause of women’s underrepresentation in scientific academic careers, it has ceased being a valid cause of women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields.”

Kahn and her coauthors—psychologists Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci of Cornell, and economist Donna K. Ginther of the University of Kansas—arrived at this conclusion after surveying hundreds of studies following tens of thousands of doctoral students from their graduate studies through their early careers. Their findings, titled “Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape,” were published in December in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

The authors found that in math-intensive fields (with the exception of economics), male and female PhDs had equal opportunities to interview and be hired for assistant professorships, received comparable pay rates, had equivalent access to tenure-track academic jobs, and had their manuscripts accepted and grants funded at equal rates.

Shulamit KahnShulamit Kahn, a coauthor of the study, says that the growing importance of publishing has made academia more of a meritocracy, at least when it comes to math-intensive sciences.Jackie RicciardiJust as noteworthy, they also discovered that compared to men, women who pursue BAs in less math-intensive fields, such as the life sciences, psychology, or the social sciences (LPS), are less likely to earn PhDs or go on to assistant professorships with their PhDs, instead choosing health and other people-related occupations. Moreover, those who do enter academia are less likely to get tenure or get promoted in both the life sciences and psychology.

Boston University Today asked Kahn about the evidence that gender parity has emerged in math-based sciences, why the track record isn’t as good in less math-intensive fields like life sciences, and what needs to be done to encourage more girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

BU Today: Women PhDs surveyed before the 1990s clearly believed a gender bias existed in academia.

Kahn: There was a gender bias. Our data starts in the ’70s, so we can see what it was like. We compare studies from the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s to now. There’s really been a lot of improvement in a lot of aspects: the likelihood of going on to get a PhD, the equality of tenure rates, the equality of citations per article.

What do you think accounts for the reversal in gender bias in math-intensive sciences?

Consciousness has changed. Women have equalized education to the point where more women are getting BAs than men. Women are more visible in careers. I attribute a lot of this to the women’s movement. When I was younger, I had to choose between being a feminist or not. These days, everyone is what we used to call a feminist, although my 20-something daughters would never use that word. It is a different world. Younger men have very different attitudes than older men, especially within academia.

When I was in the academic job market, I had a job interview where this guy asked to kiss me at the end. That’s become illegal. You do that now, and you are in great trouble. But things like that happened in the past. He saw me as a woman, not as a scholar. Now women are scholars as much as men. Numbers-wise, you could still say that engineering and physics are male bastions, and yet those women who enter these fields are treated equally. Men are sensitized, women are sensitized. In general, the growing importance of publishing has made academia more of a meritocracy.

While your research found greater gender parity when it comes to hiring, salary, and promotions, did you discover any exceptions?

Yes. There is some bad news. Women still do publish less. And women still are less likely to apply for follow-up grants. These numbers are changing very slowly.

Also, the one field that is an exception among the math-intensive fields is my own: economics. There still are gender differences in economics that you don’t see in areas like engineering. One of the most important is large gender differences in those being awarded tenure.

Your study found that women in math-related fields no longer found widespread gender discrimination, but the news wasn’t as good for women in life sciences, psychology, and social sciences. What did your findings reveal?

More than 50 percent of majors and of PhDs in these fields are going to women. So I find it quite upsetting that academics in these fields don’t fare well. Women have a harder time than men getting tenure in biology and psychology. Women are paid less when they do get a tenure-track job in biology, even single women with no children.

You found that women were more likely to leave these fields—where they are already well represented—than math-related sciences. What’s behind that trend?

In our research and other published research, Donna Ginther and I have shown that one of the things that discourages women from entering academia in the life sciences and psychology is the long clock until you get your first job. First, there’s more than seven years in graduate school, followed by more than four years of postdoc. The average time until you can apply for your first job is longer in bioscience than it is in medicine. The average age of the first major NIH grant in biomedicine is 42. For women, all this time their biological clocks are ticking away.

What are these women choosing to do instead?

The women who don’t head to PhDs after getting a BA in life sciences are often going into professions, especially health-related professions such as medicine or pharmacy studies. Pharmacy is particularly attractive to women because it has predictable hours.

Two of your study colleagues, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the study, titled “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” that generated a lot of controversy. Are there points that you wish had been included that weren’t?

Both Donna and I thought the op-ed should have talked about the other side, which is that the less math-intensive fields are not doing as well in terms of gender equality.

You also looked at marriage and the decision to have children and how those influenced women academics’ choices. What did you find?

As I said earlier, many women choose not to pursue PhDs or tenure-track jobs in the life sciences and psychology, and several surveys show that this is often because by the time they are ready to start a “real job,” their childbearing years would be practically over. Instead, they choose professions (like pharmacy) or jobs (like non–tenure track academic jobs) with more flexible hours. What we found was that this was much less of a problem in math-intensive fields. Women were not dropping out of those fields at these junctures. Studies that lump together LPS—life science, psychology, social science—and GEEMP—geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics/computer science, and the physical sciences—fields are likely to be picking up trends in the LPS fields, since there are so many more women in these fields.

There is some evidence that having children is correlated with lower numbers of women’s publications, although this fact needs to be studied more carefully to really establish children as the cause. Children are correlated with lower hours of work (outside the home) for academic women, but our analysis showed that this is true for men as well.

More academic women do respond on surveys that work interferes with family commitments than men do. More academic women respond that career demands caused them to have fewer children. So women clearly feel the tension between these two spheres more than men do.

What was the reaction to your study, especially by women academics working in the sciences? Have you had to defend your findings at all?

Frankly, we got more negative reactions than positive ones in response to the New York Times op-ed. Many of these people had not read the paper itself. I can’t blame them for that, since the paper is 66 pages long. The paper itself is much more nuanced than the op-ed, but nuance doesn’t sell papers.

Bloggers don’t pull their punches: “Flawed and offensive logic,” “Listen up ladies: It’s time to forget everything you’ve ever read about gender inequality/the academic sciences.” That’s why Donna and I wished that there were some mention of the LPS fields in the op-ed.

Those who actually read the article were much happier with what we had to say, on average. But there were still a lot of critics who thought that we were too optimistic or that we were placing too much responsibility on the women, on women choosing alternate paths. I personally feel that with the way biomedical education is presently structured (with long postdocs and a long time to grants), it does make sense for many women—and men—to choose alternative careers other than academia.

Also, I think that a lot of women dislike the article because they felt that they themselves had felt discrimination in academia, had felt that they had to fight and fight to get where they are. We’re not saying they didn’t, especially if they entered the field in the ’70s or ’80s.

Has your personal experience as someone working in a GEEMP field mirrored those of the women surveyed?

What bugs me personally are academic economics seminars. I’ve been to too many seminars where women’s voices simply have not been heard. There’ve been many times where I or some other woman made a comment, a man picked the idea up, and from then on, everyone attributed the idea to the man. Unfortunately, that happens a lot in my field.

Your study noted that current barriers to women’s full participation in GEEMP fields are rooted in precollege factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields and that research should focus on these, not on historical, no longer applicable, barriers to underrepresentation in academic science. What barriers still exist that account for women making up only 24 percent of the STEM workforce today?

As early as kindergarten and even more so by junior high and high school, there are differences in boys’ and girls’ expectations of having a career in math or science. This is true even among boys and girls with similar math performance in tests and the like. Also, girls often perceive themselves to be worse in math and science, even when they’re not.

Studies have found that stereotypes and role models are important here, and that’s the key to this. I have no doubt that many teachers throughout a child’s education believe the stereotypes to be true and convey that to their students, even when they themselves don’t realize they’re doing that. That’s probably a major reason girls underestimate their math abilities. Also, girls don’t get encouraged to be interested in science. I asked my daughters, “Why didn’t you major in engineering?” and they said, “We never heard of engineering before we got to college.”

There are so few female role models in some of these fields. Some of the literature we surveyed said that if you had a female teacher in science, or if a young woman knew a female role model who was a scientist, she was more likely to go into science herself. Girls taught by women scientists are more interested in science and more confident of their abilities.

What interventions are necessary to encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM fields?

As more women enter these fields, there will be more role models and the stereotypes believed by teachers and parents might slowly change. But at the rate women are entering these fields, we can’t wait for this to happen. I don’t know of many studies of interventions that have been particularly successful in changing teacher attitudes, but attracting more K-8 female teachers who are good in math and science can help. (Since I’m an economist, I think offering to pay them more would help.)

Several studies point to another intervention that works. If girls believe that math ability is something that can be learned, that it is not something you are born with, then girls do much better at math. If teachers were taught about this in teacher’s ed, they might actually learn to believe it themselves and pass that on to their students. Instead, the prevalent belief is that you either have it or you don’t.

Finally, curriculum should use people-focused examples in math and science. Have science projects that help people, not just that power machines. All this can help.