Women in science

By Michael McCarthy and Georgia Garrard

A woman teaching geometry. The frontispiece of a Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements, c. 1309–1316; from Wikipedia.

While the situation of women in science is improving, there are still fewer women than men staying in science, and the women who do stay tend not to progress as far in their careers as men. There are a range of reasons for this. In an effort help both women and men understand these reasons, we dedicated a session in our Graduate Seminar class to discussing “Women in Science”.

Discussing challenges faced by women in science is important, particularly among younger scientists.* So, what makes a good discussion of women in science? Do you know of similar discussions? Can you suggest a way to run them and some topics to discuss? If you are interested in running a similar discussion, you might find the following summary helpful. Here’s how we did it:


In canvassing topics, we selected themes from various readings, and then Mick tweeted to see if we had missed anything. Here are the tweets and the responses:

Mick also had one response via email from Erica Fleishman:

“Wish I could be a fly on the wall at your seminar.

Suggestion — it is not just maternity but sometimes can be unequal expectations in any family-type partnership. Who is the primary domestic in partnership? Who has more difficulty making or shifting professional plans at last minute? I do not have same-sex relationship experience — might be worthwhile to examine that too.”

Thanks to those who responded and re-tweeted Mick’s request: @biogeomicroblog, @LeMoustier, @MargotSaher, @AWISnational, @allip85, @weecology, @GertyZ, @JacquelynGill, @davidjayharris, @skmorgane, and @qaecology.

Tweeting topics for discussion and asking for feedback was a last-minute idea. It would have been good to do this further in advance, perhaps also asking for suggested readings. But the reading had already been set and there was no time to change it.

Writings on a wide range of relevant topics are abundant – where to start? We wanted to base the discussion on both personal insights, and repeatable evidence. We decided to use the review document “Why So Few?” because it cited evidence from a wide range of studies. We set Chapter 8 on “Implicit Bias” as required reading, and suggested other parts of that document, particularly Fig. 15 on stereotype threat.

Figure 15 from “Why so Few?” showing the influence of stereotype threat on mathematics scores of women relative to that of men. Telling participants that women are worse at mathematics causes women to perform worse.

We also asked the students to read Jacquelyn Gill’s post on curing imposter syndrome. This piece had numerous benefits: it was a personal reflection; it addressed a topic that we suspect is very common, especially among young scientists (both male and female); and it offered ideas about how an individual can tackle some of the challenges faced by women in science.

As this was only one of three one-hour sessions in a week, we didn’t want to load the students up with any more reading. However, we suggested they take the Implicit Association Test on Science and Gender. This evaluates how strongly an individual associates male with science disciplines versus associating female with liberal arts. Check it out if you want to take the test yourself.

The class

To start the class, we noted some reasons for discussing women in science:

  • We’ve seen evidence of discrimination based on gender, and increasing awareness of this is important.
  • Discrimination based on gender (and various other attributes) is illegal. Everyone, including those about to enter the workforce, needs to be aware of these issues. Using gender as an example helps raise awareness of other forms of illegal discrimination.
  • Men tend to be less aware of gender discrimination than women, so we wanted the men in the class to become more aware of the issues.
  • Women can be guilty of gender discrimination (even against women), and they are the most common victims. Even assuming that the women in the class were already very aware of the issues, we wanted them to know something about what can be done.
  • We emphasized that the session was not designed to attack blokes. It was designed to increase awareness of the issues and some of the research.

After this introduction, we asked “What are some factors that disadvantage women in science?” The first point noted was maternity. Science disciplines are getting better at accommodating maternity, but it is still not ideal. By coincidence, on the same day that we ran this class, our lab group discussed some of the progressive policies of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) with Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat. WEHI have some great approaches to gender equity, including funding to support childcare, and a room where kids can play and parents (including fathers) can work.

There are lots of posts about accommodating parenting within science, so we won’t write more here, except to say that one of Mick’s favourite posts is Athene Donald’s “Get a Wife”.

Of course, people sometimes discriminate directly against women on the basis of maternity. For example, people might be reluctant to offer a job to someone because of pregnancy, or even potential for pregnancy. At least in Australia, such discrimination is illegal. It is important that everyone knows their rights and obligations about this. But women will always be battling against disadvantage when pregnancy weighs unfairly on the mind of potential employees and colleagues.

We also discussed stereotype threat. This is illuminating. If women and men take a mathematics test, their results can be equivalent. However, if the participants are told that women are worse than men at mathematics, the women’s tests seem to decline noticeably, while those of men can improve. This is apparently a highly replicable result, and it also occurs in other domains (e.g., racism). One student asked what happens if people are told that men perform worse than women. Has that research been done? After the class, we couldn’t find any cases. Also, some doubt has been cast on whether stereotype threat can explain differential performance of men and women in mathematics. We’ll have to wait to see how the research plays out.

We briefly mentioned the idea that science is somewhat based on a culture of competition, and that men might tend to be more comfortable in such environments. Of course, some men are not comfortable in such environments, and some women are. Also, some areas of science are more aggressively competitive than others, while others have different degrees of collaboration.

However, the culture of a workplace is important. An engineer once mentioned to one of us that, when recruiting staff, he tended to try to gauge whether the female candidates were comfortable working in a male-dominated environment. Whoa! Surely, female engineers are fully aware of the male-dominated nature of their field.  Regardless, the recruiters were coming at this backwards; all employees have a right to feel comfortable, safe and respected in their work place. The recruiters should have been going out of their way to modify their work place so it was welcoming regardless of gender, rather than trying to determine whether the female candidates were able to conform.

The discussion then moved to implicit bias. Mick’s results for the Implicit Association Test were revealing. He responded much faster when science was associated with male. He even noticed his implicit bias when conducting the test. Once conscious of this bias, he raced even faster through the test. Not surprisingly, Mick ended up with a strong association of men with science and women with liberal arts, but many other people, including women, had a similar association.

Mick repeated the test after a couple of days, trying to force an association between women and science in his mind to see if the results could be manipulated by consciously trying to break his association. The result? No change. Mick still had a strong association. These things are hard to budge! Is it because he grew up in a household with an engineer for a father and an historian for a mother**? Perhaps – we can always blame our parents for all our foibles, can’t we? But it shows that implicit bias can be ingrained. We suspect implicit bias reflects the social environment over a person’s lifetime. It does not necessarily reflect a person’s values.

Implicit bias is extremely important. Study after study seems to have shown that simply changing someone’s name on a CV is sufficient to change the perceived performance of that person. These studies have shown that both race and gender can influence perceptions. It is compelling evidence that implicit bias is important in workplaces, even amongst those who strongly value equity and diversity.

We discussed Jacquelyn Gill’s post on imposter syndrome, and many people said they could identify with it. Rather than just identifying a problem, one of the great things about Jacquelyn’s post is that it describes a solution (well two solutions). This brought the discussion to its final phase, which addressed what can be done.

Beyond ways to get over imposter syndrome (covered in Jacquelyn Gill’s post and our subsequent discussion), we also noted that being aware of some of these topics is important. For example, the literature suggests that being aware of implicit bias, and assessing performance with quantitative criteria, can help to overcome problems of implicit bias.

Secondly, it is important to stand up against illegal discrimination. It is everyone’s responsibility to address this. Of course, taking a stand can be difficult, and understanding how to do it effectively is important. One can always get advice. Many organizations have advisers in this area. Government agencies also exist, and these are especially useful when the organizational systems fail. Become aware of organizations in your own jurisdiction that can provide useful advice.

In summary…

How would we do this better? If Mick had tweeted about the seminar session earlier, we probably would have tried to steer the discussion to some of the upsides a bit more. However, we did uncover some good news. For example, until the 1960s in Australia, female academics were sacked when they married – ok, it’s improved from a base far below sea level. But we did discuss other positives.

Edit: Here is an excellent positive post about life as a female scientist by E.J. Milner-Gulland: http://www.iccs.org.uk/why-i-love-my-job/

Reading Jacquelyn Gill’s post was valuable because it is an example of a success story. She is also early enough in her career that the students could relate to her. Jacquelyn Gill’s post demonstrates that people can overcome a sense of not quite fitting in. This linked to a few other examples that we discussed where people had overcome a sense of not fitting in because of their gender and race.

Perhaps our biggest omission was not emphasizing the value of finding mentors and networks for support. Two networks that we have found are the Women in Science Enquiry Network in Australia and The Association for Women in Science in the US. There is also a strong network via Twitter. For example, look for the #WomenInScience hash tag and various organizations and people such as @4womeninscience, @AWISnational, @SoapboxScience and @UnderMicroscope. Several bloggers cover women in science; one of Mick’s favourite blogs is by Athene Donald. Our lab group has a strong network and discussion group based on women in science. Why not start your own network?

It would have been good to discuss topics such as cultural expectations, spanning individual and personal decisions (e.g., who does the housework at home, how to balance two careers) through to social structures (e.g., who can get parental leave). It is hard to fit the wide range of topics into a single hour session. What we did was a start***.

After discussing some solutions, we finished with an example of what not to do…

Oh dear – did they read the research on what attracts and repels women from science? At least we finished with a bit of a laugh!

Edit: While I have some concerns about a cosmetic company benefiting from its sponsorship of women in science, this video is clearly much better:


* It is also a potentially sensitive topic, and some people may feel uncomfortable. By opening it up to discussion, we are trying to make people more comfortable with this topic. Still, in a classroom setting, it is important that students understand that they are in a safe, respectful and judgement-free environment during such discussions. In writing this summary, we have avoided documenting the personal stories of the students.

** Speaking of which, you might be interested in the biography of Henrietta Dugdale by Mick’s mum. Henrietta Dugdale played an important role in women’s suffrage in Australia. She is significant internationally because Australia was the first country that allowed women to be elected to parliament, partly as a result of Henrietta Dugdale’s efforts.

*** By the way, our lab group has discussed most of these topics over the course of several weeks. We’re planning to blog about those discussions too. We’ll let you know when they are posted.

There are lots of online resources and reports if you want further reading. In addition to the links provided in the post, here is a small haphazard sample:

Edit: there is a list of 40 online resources at: http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2012/10/40-important-online-resources-women-stem/






Edit: Here’s some more advice about how to approach discussions of diversity. Written in a different style from this piece, it is well worth reading: The Straight, White Dudes’ Guide to Discussing Diversity: Handy tips and tricks every guy can use to be more helpful and avoid the eye roll

5 thoughts on “Women in science

  1. Pingback: Grad seminar session on women in science | Michael McCarthy's Research

  2. Pingback: Women in Science | Michael McCarthy's Research

  3. This weekend I have been attending an early career researchers’ workshop for mathematicians in Australia. Of 40-50 attendees (excluding organisers and invited speakers), I only saw three women. This seemed really low to me even by the standards of a male-dominated subject, especially with such a young audience (my experience elsewhere has been that women are present in considerable numbers in maths at the PhD/postdoc level at least). One of the organisers even asked about it in the Q&A. By contrast, of the invited speakers 2 of 6 were women, and of the organisers 1 of 3, which is still a minority but not so bad given the numbers in the discipline overall. Given the difficulties of working in academia, it’s really sad if women are being put off attending careers advice workshops.

  4. Pingback: SpotOnLondon 2012: Get online and spread your wings | SpotOn

  5. Pingback: A Nature Special: Women’s Work | SpotOn

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