Some answers to “Why are there still so few women in science?”

Eileen Pollack asks in The New York Times Magazine: “Why are there still so few women in science?” And she gives a few intriguing answers. Part of what makes her article compelling is the combination of hard data from recent years and personal stories from women in science that make a rather irrefutable case that gender bias exists.

This is not only true in physics and computer science, but even in biology, which has made faster gains than either of these fields in the number of college graduates, graduate students, and faculty (though the numbers diminish by that stage). Researchers gave faculty in different fields identical resumes from a student named John or Jennifer. (Online article here.) Even the female faculty and the biologists rated John as more competent (though Jennifer was more likable), and suggested a higher starting salary for John. Gender bias, it turns out, can exert itself even in subtle and unconscious ways.

But unfortunately overt biases haven’t eliminated themselves, either. Pollack talks to some students who have been told, variously, that girls can’t do physics, that they will be graded on the easier “girl curve”, and that a lack of confidence means they are not fit to take a rigorous math class. Like many other women, I am not surprised. My junior high math teacher told me and the other top two female students in the class that while we could beat the boys now, they would inevitably surpass us as we got older–warning us that our confidence was temporary and our fleeting success meant little for our futures. I know now that she spoke out of ignorance, but I won’t pretend that the doubt didn’t follow me through challenging moments in advanced calculus or linear algebra.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Gender bias in STEM fields is not universal, and the way we address it in the United States can have a large impact. Pollack points out that plenty of smart and creative women enter STEM fields in other countries, where it’s not assumed that math is for boys and geeks.

In other cultures a gift for math is often seen as demonstrating that a person is intuitive and creative . . . between 1958 and 2008, Bulgaria sent 21 girls to the International Mathematical Olympiad, while the U.S., from 1974, when it first entered the competition, to 2008, sent only 3; no woman even made the American team until 1998.

In some places, we can institute policies that help to counteract gender bias. For example, when journals switch to a gender-blind method of identifying authors on scientific papers, female authorship generally increases (example here). An unconscious gender bias is not very different from your other run-of-the-mill cognitive biases, such as a tendency to value anecdotes over data, to recall false memories, to think correlation is causation, or to only pay attention to information which confirms your previous biases.

We know from studies that gender bias affects hiring decisions and salaries, and likely much more–such as mentor relationships, letters of recommendation, informal networking, and invitations to write commentary or give scientific talks. Being proactive and aware about countering gender bias, just as we might remind ourselves that correlation is not causation, can go a long way to making the sciences more welcoming to brilliant women.


Featured image: Meg Urry, Prof. of Physics & Astronomy at Yale University, photo courtesy of Indiana University.

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(Stay tuned for a series of posts interviewing women in STEM fields and their own thoughts and stories!)

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!

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