On Women in Science

Forty years ago, women were grossly under represented in Sciences, be it medicine or research. Since then, dramatic gains have been made – roughly 50% of the MD degrees or PhDs in life sciences are awarded to women. And yet, women still lag behind men in full professorships and tenure track positions, especially in math intensive field. A simple explanation for this disparity could be discrimination as has been asserted by various studies in recent times.

In a  study published in PNAS, authors Ceci and Williams  looked for evidence for such discrimination in the areas of publishing, grant review or hiring. They thoroughly analyzed and discussed twenty years worth of data and showed lack of evidence for overt discrimination in these areas. When it came to publishing, they looked at manuscripts acceptance rate and found that women are as likely to publish as men  provided the comparison is made between men and women with similar resources and characteristics. Grant reviewing process seems to be gender blind. Discrimination at hiring level has also decreased since 2000.

This indicates that reasons other than overt discrimination could be contributing to the problem. For instance, women are more likely to occupy positions with limited access to resources – be it teaching intensive positions or part time positions – and hence are less likely to publish. Or women are more disproportionately affected due to fertility. Indeed, the authors point to three major contributors to  this under representation of women in the math intensive fields: family choices, career preference and ability differences, and suggest that different questions be asked to understand the reason behind the leak in academic pipeline.

Findings from Postdoctoral survey done by the Second Task Force on the Status of NIH intramural Women Scientists actually highlight these very points. Around 1300 intramural postdoctoral fellows at the NIH (43% women and 57% men) took part in this survey. More than 2/3rds of the men but only 1/2 the women considered a PI position as a career choice. Women rated children, spending time with children or with other family members as “extremely important” or “very important” to their decision making while men considered them less important.  57% of married female postdocs who had no kids and more than 36% of single women (compared to 29% and 21% men, respectively) rated children as a “very important” or “extremely important” factor influencing their career choices.  When considering traveling or demanding schedule of PI, married women were more likely to be concerned compared to single women. However marital status of men had no influence on this factor. Breakdown on partner status indicated that women were more likely to have spouses that worked 40hrs or more per week and less likely to have have a partner who does not work outside the home. This bias is reflected in childcare habits -43% men reported a spouse or relative cared for the kids during the day in contrast to 16% of the women.  In case of dual career couples, women were likely to make changes to accommodate their husband’s job than men (34% vs 21 %) and furthermore, men were likely to expect this concession from their spouse.

These data clearly reflect that woman’s choices are hampered by biological and societal constraints.  Simple measures like providing on site child care, creating funding opportunities for research re-entry positions after a partial or full absence for family reasons, instituting family friendly policies that allow for a lull in productivity due to fertility etc would go a long way in making academia a viable and satisfying career for women.

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