Sunday, 10 April 2011

Of Women in Science

A recent post by FSP got me thinking about something. I am well aware that women in male-dominated fields often experience some form of discrimination, but I seriously thought it was an issue well out the door in this day and age. I have never experienced any myself, other than a couple of weird off-hand comments by non-scientists, so I was very shocked to see so many horror stories in the comments of FSP's blog (most of them from the US).

I should also add to this that I didn't know that physics was a male-dominated field until shortly before I started university. I went to an all-girls high school and we had two full physics classes, so one can forgive my preconceptions. As a result, I never expected to be treated differently for being female because I didn't see myself as different from other students.

A pertinent question in physical sciences is why women have not permeated through the ranks as much as in biological sciences. And even then, top academic roles are still dominated by men. So why are their more males in leadership roles anyway? Is a big part of it a generational divide?

In addition to being in a male-dominated field, I also have male-dominated hobbies. I have somehow (unwittingly) ended up in leadership and/or organisational roles in most groups I have been part of (from clubs to academic groups). And you know what? There have always been a disproportionate number of females on these committees. For some reason, they seem more likely to volunteer to organise something or be a club committee member. My experience so far is that most guys prefer to take a back seat and just go with the flow.

So why is it different in the high ranks of academia? Or in business? Do we just have to wait for people like us to grow up and fill those roles?

I would love to hear other people's thoughts on this.


  1. I tend to think it's a generational thing..

    I'm in engineering and have similarly male-dominated hobbies, but even so, women tend to be disproportionately represented in community leadership roles, as opposed to institutional leadership roles, where men tend to dominate (though not disproportionately to their numbers in the field in general).

    For example, the Department of Industrial Engineering here, which I'm a part of, has about 25% female students, even less at the graduate level. Both the honors society and departmental student society, however, have predominantly female leadership (75% and around 60%, respectively). Our faculty are about 50/50, while university institutional leaders are mostly men (with the exception of our provost and president, who are both female).

    Here's some guesses as to why this is the case (that rely on broad stereotypes, though hopefully positive ones - I'm not sure you can have this sort of conversation without using a few stereotypes).

    - Firstly, older people tend to have more ingrained gender roles. These aren't determinative of what will happen, but tend to mean that only highly motivated or exceptional women are able to secure leadership roles within that peer group (50 years old+). There may be active discrimination at play within this age group, as well, but without evidence, I don't want to speculate.

    - Secondly, it seems that women in traditionally male dominated fields tend to be a little more assertive and courageous than average, suggesting that they're more likely to be interested in leadership roles.

    - Thirdly, the women I meet in my field also tend to be more public-spirited, with a stronger idea of what the group can do for them and their peers. It seems that the women in my field are less combative and aggressive, and have better developed social skills than many of the men, making them more likely to be successful in leadership roles (making them more likely to be selected and more likely to stick around).

    - Fourthly, in my field (and a lot of the sciences, I understand), there's a higher proportion of international students, particularly in the US. Many of them come from societies with much stronger gender stereotypes, meaning that (in engineering) they're mostly male, but many of them also don't have strong language skills, meaning they're less likely to participate in leadership activities. With this one, all I'm saying is that the ratio of men to women in the student body doesn't necessarily suggest a similar ratio of men to women in leadership roles, as not all men are predisposed towards leadership (and in the case of international students with poor English skills, I'd argue there's a fairly significant barrier to entry).

    Going back to your original point, though, I think it's a matter of time - if the contribution of women to leadership within our generation of science and engineering (and university politics in general) is anything to go by, I'd expect to see similar ratios at higher levels over the next couple of decades.

  2. Your blog ate my post, so I will try again.

    It's this part of the research which makes me really sad - as a young woman looking at taking on an academic career, a lot of soul searching needs to happen. I'm 24, and already I'm having to choose: kids or career? And I'm in the Humanities - a relatively female-friendly field (especially since I am a gender studies/sociology person).

    Anyway. Women in leadership roles - or the lack thereof. There are several reasons why women aren't that common in the higher levels of academia - part of it is often that they don't see themselves as candidates - women are notoriously bad at putting themselves forward for promotion, particularly out-of-round. Many women look at the weight of the role, and decide not to go for it - though they are perfectly qualified, it may be adding on extra work that they simply don't want to complicate themselves with. There are also aspects of 'old-boys-ness' - if you are looking at trying to get a management position when there are no women there, it's going to make you pause. Apparently, the best thing to do is to elevate 3 or 4 women at the same time - it's a large enough number to get over tokenism.

    However, the problem is finding women who have the qualifications to take on the roles - many women have career breaks or 'non-traditional' career paths. It is my opinion that until we are able to adjust for this, we are going to see a lack of high level academic women. There are other issues, largely on a social level, about exactly what constitutes employment norms.

    Though some universities are trying to level out the career playing field, by insisting that new mums and dads take equal time off, studies have found that while the mums take care of bub, the dads will tend to slap the kid into daycare and go off and get some extra professional experience on the side.

    On the plus side, studies have shown, in Australia anyway, that women are actually more successful when they apply for promotions than their male peers - once you convince them to apply in the first place.

    In many ways, because we went to all girls schools, we may actually have an advantage. We were shielded from a lot of cultural gender streaming that our peers in co-ed schools got. If anything, it was the male teachers at my school who were the second-class citizens: my school was largely run by the girls, and the female staff. I think the only senior male executive was the bursar - all other posts were held by women for the majority of my 7 years there.

    A lot of my research is going to be dealing with this, and the attrition and retention rates of female graduate students in the Antipodes is something I am interested in - a lot of the available studies on NZ are a good 20 years old, by now. So I can probably keep you up to date, if you'd like.

  3. Your comment was filtered as spam for some reason!

    I would love to hear what comes out of your research!