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Why Are There So Few Women in Science, Continued

Kudos to The New York Times for commissioning an article on why there are so few women in science. Author Eileen Pollack suggests two reasons. Citing her own experience as an undergraduate at Yale, she argues that women doubt themselves, and need to be encouraged more to pursue science careers: “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”

Twenty years of work by myself and Mary Ann Mason confirms Pollack’s worry that things don’t look good for women in science. The threshold problem is one Pollack discusses in only a sentence or two: the impact of children.

Motherhood is a much bigger hurdle to a career in science than Pollack acknowledges. Mary Ann Mason’s important work shows that only one-third of women who enter the tenure track without children ever have them—and the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) who do so is even smaller.

Pollack quotes one woman scientist discounting the impact of motherhood on the grounds that “being an academic provides a female scientist with more flexibility than most other professions.” But many women are abruptly pushed out of science careers the minute they have children. Young research scientists often are told by the principal investigators they work for that they will be fired unless they return to work within a few weeks after the birth of their children. Note that this is illegal. Title IX requires that universities that offer temporary disability leave to anyone on campus must offer maternity leave, on the same terms, to graduate students and post-docs, as explained in a forthcoming article in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change by Mary Ann Mason and Jaclyn Younger.

Another part of the motherhood problem is discrimination, pure and simple. Studies document that discrimination against mothers is often strong and remarkably open. Recently I completed a study including interviews of sixty women scientists of color. One recalled an incident in which a colleague was told to go home and have more babies. An Asian-American remarked, “If you had a full-blown career, that’s inconsistent with being a mother. I certainly feel that sentiment.” Said a third, “I feel like people think that Asian women, they are caring and then they will give up their professions for their children.”

Much of the gender bias, as Pollack recognizes, has nothing to do with motherhood. In the interviews, we described the four basic patterns of gender bias and asked whether they sounded familiar. “Every syllable,” responded one woman. Another, upon hearing the patterns described, burst into tears.

My study highlights the “slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks across the path to success,” to quote Meg Urry, the astrophysicist interviewed by Pollack. Striking, in particular, was the isolation. “This has been a very lonely life,” said one scientist. Another reported “feeling inadequate, some depression” because “you really don’t have the support you need.” The most striking story was of an Asian American whose department chair put up on the blackboard a diagram with three circles depicting the interrelations within the department. She was way out, isolated, on the extreme edge. “I said, ‘You know, if I was a little bit to the right, I’d be out of the department,’” she quipped. But, she admitted, “It gets to me. It’s hurtful.”

Those interviewed also recognized Prove-It-Again! bias, which requires women to provide more evidence of competence than men in order to be seen as equally competent. One scientist had her success in an experiment discounted by male colleagues who attributed her success to the fact she was using their protocol, a pattern known as attribution bias. Another, a Latina, recounted when audience members disrespectfully interrupted her while she was in the middle of a presentation, assuming she had made a mistake she had not made. A third reported a pattern called leniency bias: “You know that the rule only applies to the people it applies to,” observed one woman. “Generally speaking, women—and women of color—would be strictly held to rules and then some.”

These patterns stem from the automatic image of a scientist as a man, which means that women may be presumed incompetent. Women scientists get this from students, too. “I have always had the impression when I start a class, a course, it is always an uphill kind of battle. I get the impression that students don’t believe that I know what I’m supposed to know,” noted one black woman scientist.

Another pattern is The Tightrope women walk between being seen as too feminine (and not taken seriously), and too masculine (and disliked). “To get ahead here,” said a woman at MIT, “you have to be so aggressive. But if women are too aggressive they’re ostracized…and if they’re not aggressive enough they have to do twice the work.”

The most dramatic “too masculine” story came from a black scientist who received feedback that she was “unnecessarily brusque, undeferential” to her staff after she suffered a traumatic brain injury. The hospital staff told her “it was obvious that I needed to stay in rehabilitation longer until I started acting like a woman.” She recalled wryly, “This was in [in the South]. I don’t know how to be the southern belle. I’m from [a Northern city].” She had little choice but to play along. “I dropped my IQ by several points and started looking for little things to decorate myself with.”

“[I]f you’re aggressive, then you’re definitely the B word,” remarked a woman in medicine. “I was never part of the in group,” said an Asian American. “I’m very candid and I do not hesitate to open my mouth, and that was probably not the submissive female [they were expecting] . . . . I immediately started, I guess, having the reputation of being a dragon lady.”

Women are expected to be feminine; for one thing, they’re expected to do the office housework. The most poignant story was of a black scientist whose mentors were “very adamant” that she didn’t “need to sit on every blasted committee.” So, in a meeting with the provost, she pointed out that whites as well as people of color could be tapped to serve on diversity committees. The provost responded by inviting her to serve on another diversity committee. “Of course I’m not going to say no to the provost,” she remarked. “This is the man who basically has my tenure in his hands.”

Asian-Americans described being treated as the “perpetual lab assistant” and Latinas described pressure to play the office housewife. One described herself as “the mother of our research group.” Another scientist found herself “asked to be kind of the mother of the group. I’m the one who has to make sure that everybody fills out their paperwork, and I’m the one who takes care of things, sets up the meetings and things like that. I mean, I play many roles that could be done by a competent administrative assistant if we happen to have had a competent administrative assistant, which we don’t. . . . It’s assumed that I’ll take care of it because nobody else will.” “[T]hese kind of administrative duties eat into my time,” noted another scientist.

Common in workplaces in which women are rare is the Tug of War pattern: women pitted against other women. Said one scientist, “I have been in an organization where there was room for one woman, but one woman decided that she was it and would simply sabotage her colleagues, which unfortunately included me.” Another noted, “I have seen females trying to be very accommodating and playing a certain role that made them more likable. I tended to be very professional, straightforward, and not stroking people’s egos or whatnot.” She recalled “woman wars” where someone strives to prove “she is better: she can give more, she can do more, and there were games played along those lines.” “That happened over and over again,” she said. A third described a monthly meeting in which the only other woman in her group “pretty much focuses attention on the men.” She added, “rarely she’ll look at me. I’m thinking she might be one of those type of women where, okay, there’s only room for one.” Studies document that when women experience discrimination early in their careers, many respond by distancing themselves from other women.

Woman-on-woman conflict also arises between scientists and support staff. “My stuff won’t get done first,” noted a scientist. “They say the bosses are too demanding,” said another, recalling a conversation with administrative assistants who worked with her. She said to them, “Well, the boss that you had before was equally demanding. The guy that you were working under was equally demanding.” The assistants’ reaction: “Yeah, but that’s different.” Mused another woman, “If a male boss asks, ‘Can you bring me a copy?’ they will, and if you ask the same thing, they will say, ‘Well, why am I going to bring you the copy?’” Race exacerbates the problem. “Here they have this Mexican woman telling them what to do,” remarked one scientist.

Pollack has opened up an important conversation. The take-away, as she realizes, is not just that we need to encourage young women to pursue undergraduate majors in science. The issue is not just why women don’t enter science. The number of women science PhDs has increased sharply. In fact, in the life sciences women earn over half of all PhDs.

Based on the results of my study, I’d say the issue also isn’t why more women scientists don’t stay. It’s why more don’t leave. Being a woman scientist may be thrilling intellectually, but the day to day grind sounds pretty darn grim. (For a suite of tools to keep women in STEM, see



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