Women in Academic STEM

Today, I would like to focus on the issue of retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This post will focus on academic STEM careers.

The “Leaky Pipeline”

According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, the percentage of STEM Bachelor’s degrees earned by women remained around 50% from 2001-2010. The percentage of STEM doctorate degrees earned by women in that same time period rose slightly from 43.8% to 46.0%. Only 34.7% of Postdoctoral Fellows in 2010 were female, however, and the percentage of female Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors in 2010 were 44.4%, 38.0%, and 21.9%, respectively (see graph). The jump between Postdoctoral Fellows and Assistant Professors is interesting, but it is hard to glean from these data whether this is because only some STEM fields have significant postdoctoral training periods (and are, therefore, more heavily represented in the data set) or whether hiring at the junior faculty level is better than at the postdoctoral level for female job candidates.  In general, however, a smaller percentage of the STEM workforce is female as one climbs the academic ladder. This is often referred to as the “leaky pipeline.”

2014-03-27 Women STEM Pipeline Graph

Should we be concerned about this? Is this due to coincidence, women’s choices, or systematic inopportunity? Will this issue just resolve itself if we give the “pipeline” more time to mature, allowing the women entering the system now to fill the ranks of academia later? Admittedly, this is a complex topic without easy solutions, but I will cover some of the most important points.

There are many hypotheses about why there are fewer women in STEM than men, especially at the highest levels. The most widely discussed hypotheses include the three listed here:

1. Women have lower innate ability.
2. Women face discrimination.
3. Women are saddled with increased domestic obligations outside of work.

1. Do women have lower innate ability?

In 2005 Larry Summers, then-President of Harvard, stated controversially that discrimination alone did not account for the lack of women in STEM jobs. Instead he hypothesized that the lack of women in STEM jobs may be due to “issues of intrinsic aptitude.” The backlash against these views contributed to his resignation from Harvard, but is it true that women are naturally less capable scientists?

Diversity advocates like Stanford neuroscientist Ben Barres, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, and organizations like the Association for Women in Science and Women in Neuroscience have tirelessly debunked many of Larry Summers’s ideas. I suggest you check out some of the talks linked above.

Summers’s main evidence for women’s lower aptitude was that women supposedly have a smaller range of mathematical abilities than men despite a similar average ability (according to a single study he referenced). This means that more men received both the highest scores and the lowest scores on a test of mathematical ability when compared to women. Summers argued that, therefore, when you look at the very highest scores, men are more represented, which may lead to an advantage in STEM careers. However, this finding is not consistent across different studies, so the idea that women are less capable than men does not stand up to scrutiny.  Additionally, any scientist will tell you that passion, determination, creativity, and luck have as much, if not more, to do with success in a science career than smarts, so extreme mathematical test scores are not necessarily predictive of career success anyway.

2. Do women face discrimination?

Despite Larry Summers’s claims, studies have shown that implicit biases, which are unconscious forms of discrimination, are leading to fewer opportunities for women. Many of the details about how implicit biases work can be found in the talks linked above, but one particular study has garnered a lot of attention recently, so I will mention it here. In this study, both male and female scientists rated an equivalently qualified female job candidate as less hireable and less competent than a male candidate and offered the female candidate a lower salary for the same position. Female job candidates, therefore, may be at a disadvantage during the hiring process.

One way that implicit biases manifest may be in defining the traits a candidate needs for the job. In one study, participants rated the relative importance of formal education versus job experience differently based on the gender of the applicant. For a stereotypically male job, whichever trait the male candidate possessed was perceived as most important for the job while this exact same trait was perceived as less important for the job when it was possessed by a female candidate. The authors of this study hypothesize that this redefinition of job qualifications based on the candidate’s gender allows hiring committees to feel that they are being objective when they are, in fact, being discriminatory. The unconscious nature of this discrimination makes it particularly troublesome to fix.

We do not know how much of the STEM pipeline leak is due to implicit biases, but these studies make it clear that women still face discrimination when entering male-dominated career fields.

3. Are women saddled with increased domestic obligations outside of work?

Some argue that women are choosing to leave science instead of being shut out. According to a National Science Foundation study, women that apply for academic positions are just as likely to get those jobs as men. The interesting part is that fewer women are applying for these jobs in the first place than would be expected by the number of women available to apply. The authors believe this dearth of applicants is an important factor leading to the leaky pipeline.

The clear question is, “Why are these women not applying for academic positions?” Is it because of discrimination and active discouragement? Is it because they are freely choosing another lifestyle?

It is true that women are still more heavily burdened with domestic obligations than men. However, a recent study suggests that the lack of support, mentorship, and opportunities offered to women is having a greater effect on women choosing to leave STEM careers than their domestic obligations. So, some women are “choosing” to leave, but these choices are driven by reduced job satisfaction, which may be partly due to discriminatory allocation of resources or added stress from juggling non-work obligations.

So, now what?

It seems that unconscious discrimination and decreased job satisfaction play a large factor in women’s choices to leave STEM careers. We as a society are losing potentially great thinkers and innovators that could change the face of technology and our understanding of the world. We are also losing our chance to increase diversity in the workforce when diversity itself may be a recipe for success. Even Nature Magazine was concerned enough by the lack of women in science to produce a special issue on the subject.

So what is the solution? How do we make STEM careers more attractive to the best and the brightest, regardless of gender? How do we foster better work environments and reduce biases against women?

ID-100226596-female scientist

At the national level, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy has made a firm commitment to increasing the number of women in STEM careers. This office promotes mentorship programs and flexible leave policies in addition to tracking Title IX compliance. Even the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have instituted programs and policies that give more flexibility to research grant recipients with family obligations. A year ago, a bill was introduced in Congress, but never made it past committee, that encourages the National Science Foundation to provide grants that improve education, training, and mentorship to women and other underrepresented groups.

Support from the federal government is a good step in the right direction, but for changes to be effective, they need to happen at the institutional, departmental, and individual levels. We need to bolster mentorship for women so they can more easily navigate the system, implement implicit bias training for hiring committees and mentors, and change the culture at research institutions so that diversity is embraced. Organizations advocating for better legislation and institutional policies include the National Research Council’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the Association for Women in Science, and Women in Neuroscience. Some organizations like Lean In are reaching out directly to women to try to boost their participation in male-dominated fields. At UT Southwestern, the Office of Women’s Careers, the Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee, and the Office of Faculty Diversity and Development offer networking and educational events like the Mentoring Series for Female Graduate Students and Postdocs to help UT Southwestern women develop their careers (disclosure: I am on the Mentoring Series Committee). I haven’t even touched on educational programs aimed at getting elementary and high school girls interested in science (maybe in another blog post?), but these programs are also helping to patch up the leaky pipeline.


One of the best ways we as individuals can help increase women in STEM is to educate ourselves about the barriers holding women back and to acknowledge that we need all the minds we can muster to meet today’s scientific challenges. There are many programs in place trying to eliminate the leaky pipeline, but we need to continue being creative and proactive in order to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to make their mark in the STEM fields.

Editor: A.W.


One thought on “Women in Academic STEM

  1. Susan G. May 13, 2014 / 11:39 pm

    Nice job Devon.

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