International Women’s Day: taking a closer look at women in science

Just ahead of International Women’s Day, the journal Nature decided to take a look at the state of women in science and gender bias in research, dedicating many articles and op-ed’s to all sorts of topics. And while they tried to sound enlightened and modern in their approach to the issue, as a woman in science myself I was slightly confused and a little insulted after reading their pages.

They spat out the statistics and talked more than once about how the deck is stacked against women in any and all scientific fields, drilling home that all of us are unconsciously biased toward the maintenance of gender roles, trying to appear sympathetic without assigning blame. Instead they implied quite a bit about how those few women in science make it, and why: largely ignoring what I believe to be the main issue: mentoring of women.

They ran a story titled “From the frontline: 30 something Science” where they chronicled the paths to success of several women scientists in various fields. All of these success stories featured women who seemed to have it all, the prestigious position, the lovely family, the respect of their peers, if only they were willing to work hard enough and make sacrifices:

Being five months pregnant comes with a series of concessions: no booze, no sushi, no double-shot espressos…[breakdancing] is one of the few limitations that Tye, 31, has been willing to accept. Striving to make her mark in optogenetics, one of the hottest fields in neuroscience, Tye thought nothing of working past midnight, getting by on four or five hours sleep a night and maintaining a constant, transcontinental travel schedule…With her mother as a role model, Tye says that she was in her teens before it occurred to her that her gender could hold back her career.

Great, so if only all of us women only worked harder, yes we might have to make sacrifices, but as long we do not accept sacrificing anything for our career and do whatever it takes, we’ll make it. The article goes on to describe how Tye “tearfully” “begged” another successful woman for a place in her lab, threatening to drop out of graduate school if she wasn’t taken in. Another strange bit of writing…is this really the path to success?

But herein lies the real problem. This article glosses over the small detail that Tye had several female mentors not only in life, but during very important times in her career. She became very successful once she was able to convince another woman to help her, and that is not a coincidence. That isn’t to say that she wouldn’t have been successful in a man’s lab, she probably would have, as long as she received good mentoring from that person. All of us, men included, don’t become successful without the help of others, no matter how absurdly talented we may be. Statistically, men receive more mentorship than women, especially in the sciences. That includes men helping women, but more striking is how many less women are inclined to mentor other women. Nature itself even sounded mildly surprised when mentioning that there is no correlation between the number of women who sit on grant review committees and the number of women researchers who receive grants from those same committees. And while I would argue that this is a good thing, it hints at a larger theme that it is expected for women in science to help other women in science and quite honestly, they don’t always.

Unfortunately, women helping women gets much less attention then women spurning other women, which hurts cultural attitudes and expectations about women’s relationships to their peers. Stepping out of science for a second into popular culture, the media broadcasts the latest female feuds with glee: whether manufactured or real. The latest example between Taylor Swift and Tina Fey/Amy Poehler, isn’t just fueling the female feud stereotype, but actually damaging the case for “women helping women.” Taylor Swift angrily insinuated that by embarrassing her at the Golden Globes, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would go to “a special hell for women who don’t help other women.”  This quote in Vanity Fair magazine was simple retaliation, using the very methods she claims to abhor. Her hypocrisy is sadly typical, and actually hurts the “women should help other women” debate.

Many women in positions of power are in a delicate position: often watched very closely for signs of favoritism. They may even have a bit of a chip on their shoulder;  unwilling to help other women because of the sub-par/non-existent mentoring they received themselves. The reverse is often true of younger women. Many today feel entitled to special treatment by older women without earning anything or working particularly hard. None of these scenarios should be the case. I have had and continue to have been fortunately to have several mentors both women and scientists, sometimes both. But it’s not easy to find them.

I won’t even talk much about the incredibly high and unrealistic expectations the US expects of their workforce: long hours, low pay, a much reduced quality of life in exchange for a wonderful career. When some people, rightly so, judge that to be a bad opportunity cost, other people are shocked: s/he just didn’t work hard enough! Maybe working hard is exactly what we need to do; maybe overworking is not.

Some of the most outrageous examples of bias in science, courtesy of Nature:

One study showed that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are offered US$11,000 less salary than women with no children3. By contrast, the same study shows that parenthood confers an advantage to men in the workplace.

A particular professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. On the first day of class, “he looked around and said ‘I see women in the classroom. I don’t believe women have any business in engineering, and I’m going to personally see to it that you all fail’.”

In biology, for example, women comprised 36% of assistant professors and only 27% of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the US National Research Council3.

Professors said they would offer the student named Jennifer US$3,730 less per year than the one named John, even though the CVs were identical. The scientists also reported a greater willingness to mentor John than Jennifer.

  • Nature 495, 22–24 (07 March 2013)
  • Nature 495, 28–31 (07 March 2013)