Last month, the AAUW released "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics", an NSF-funded report compiling the results of eight recent investigations. These eight studies sought to tease out the factors contributing to the well-known fact that women are highly underrepresented in STEM careers, accounting for only a third of the workforce in chemistry, a quarter in computer sciences, and down to as little as one-fifteenth to one-twentieth across engineering disciplines. The only place where women fare better is in the biological sciences, where they hold around half of the jobs; this number drops, however, when focusing on careers in academia. While women earn around one-half of the doctorates in biology, they only comprise a little more than one-third of tenure track faculty positions. What are the underlying causes for these discrepancies and what can be done to remedy it?
Some have argued that inherent gender differences are at play and girls simply are not as good as boys at math and science; the report by the AAUW finds no conclusive evidence to substantiate this claim. They summarize findings that girls now perform as well as boys on math tests, there are little to no differences in average IQ between genders, and data linking gender differences in brain structure and hormones to ability were found to be inconclusive. Moreover, cognitive differences that do exist, for instance in areas of spatial visualization, can be taught. What they do find, however, is that reinforcing negative stereotypes can and do affect performance, leading directly to significant drops in math test scores. The implication then, is that planting the seed that women are not as good as men can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and further, that this can lead to reduced interest in pursuing math and science.
But times have changed and these stereotypes are not as pervasive as they once were… or are they? The AAUW report highlights intriguing research that has uncovered the existence of unconscious biases. These are prejudices and perceptions that we are not aware of possessing and that may even run contrary to what we consciously believe. The implicit association test (IAT) has been used to demonstrate these biases and in one specific test case for gender-science associations, more than 70% of over half a million people of either gender associated women more strongly with the arts and men with the sciences. (You can take the test for yourself by visiting https://implicit.harvard.edu. Caution- the results may surprise you). So despite our best efforts to shed these antiquated notions, they persist even if we are not aware of it.
The AAUW cites several studies that show how these implicit biases undermine women in the workplace, especially in traditionally masculine fields like the sciences and engineering. In tests assessing the perceived competency of two identical employees, one male and one female, it is fascinating that the woman is typically deemed less competent than the man despite having the same qualifications and credentials. It has also been been determined that women have to publish significantly more papers in order to be considered as competent as their male counterparts. Moreover, differences in letters of recommendation written for women versus for men have been observed that could contribute to the reduced success rate in obtaining competitive faculty positions.
Even when a faculty position has been secured, women are still more likely than men to report wanting to leave as well as experiencing greater dissatisfaction overall. The factor cited most by women owing to this level of dissatisfaction was the sense of isolation in their departments. Women report feeling excluded from talks and discussions among colleagues, lacking in mentorship and role models, and as one of only a few women in any given science department, like they do not fit in.
The AAUW recommends that academic departments combat these kinds of barriers by providing faculty with formal mentorship to alleviate feelings of isolation and spreading awareness that implicit biases do exist and impact our perceptions and decisions on a subconscious level. The first strategy would address female faculty retention. The second would help ensure that gender is not factoring into faculty position and funding decisions.
In thinking about all this, I am reminded of a story told in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, of how orchestras were historically male-dominated until the practice of performing auditions behind screens was implemented. This small change of concealing the gender of the musician auditioning led to the influx of women and minorities in orchestras and completely shattered the deeply-entrentched, irrational rationale that men were just inherently better at playing classical music. Science should take note and follow suit.