Women in STEM


Whilst looking up material for a presentation on the subject, I came across UN statistics:" … women earn nearly half of all engineering degrees in Indonesia, while some of the most male-dominated engineering programmes are found in such affluent countries as the United States, Japan and Switzerland. Iran, Romania and Malaysia are among the countries where women earn the largest share of science degrees (Charles, 2011a; Charles & Bradley, 2009; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 2010)." Could one factor be that in developed countries most STEM national heroes are male (and there are lots of them going back many years), whereas the hall of fame for stars in STEM in developing countries may perhaps still be relatively small? I wonder if there are any publications to dispel or support such a proposition.



Welcome, Hind.
That’s a really interesting question. I am, unfortunately unable to answer that except to give the anecdote that our overseas student cohorts in biotechnology include many women - probably more than half. But anything life science related does tend to attract more women anyway.
But I don’t know of any publications on this, unfortunately.



Hallo, Hind! 

That is a fascinating question! I wonder if anyone could do a literature search? We’re a bit of a small community atm, but perhaps as we grow someone might happen along with some data! 


UK risks losing over 33,000 much-needed female scientists each year, research shows

New research has shown almost a quarter of current female science students will not or are not sure whether they will pursue a career in science, equating to 33,371 students, based on statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

While I appreciate that this sort of research is being conducted, I do wish that they would do similar research on male students. It makes it really hard to see if there’s significant differences between the sexes. For example, are men just as worried about work-life balance but decide that they have to go for it, or is it not a concern? Are they just as lonely but battle on because ‘that’s what men do’ or do they find it a more social experience than the women? The answers to these questions will help to address the problems. On a more fundamental level, are the number of women leaving STEM higher than those of men? Other research says that they are but this doesn’t seem to address that at all.



The sexism problem
A really good piece that is at once really sad and anger-inducing, discussing the seemingly-intractable presence of sexism in STEM driving women away. It is well worth a read but one quote needs to be spread far and wide,

What priceless treasures of human potential are being lost to science because men in positions of power are unzippering their libidinal urges?



This is a well-meaning article but it fails on many fronts. I thought it was worth linking to in order to show that not every attempt at promoting women in STEM is successful and to hopefully learn from this.

Do I have to give up being a mom for science?

The main problem is that the article presents a series of women who have become mothers and still kept their careers. It offers nothing more than a brief bio, with barely a mention of their children and most lacking of all, there is no attempt to discuss what impact, if any, having children had on their careers.

I was also deeply troubled by this comment about Ottoline Leyser,

Leyser proposes looking at the way that men have been both parents and scientists for centuries as a model for today

Personally, I think that is a terrible way of getting more mothers into science. The way fathers have ‘juggled’ parenthood and career traditionally has been to have stay-at-home wives who look after everything on the home front so they can dedicate all their time to work. I don’t want to create a system that encourages absentee mothers, I want to create a system that encourages a work-life balance so that mothers, fathers, and those without kids don’t feel compelled to spend their entire waking lives behind a computer or in a lab.



On that last post, it was a terrible article. Just a laundry list of women with children, which lets face it is not a difficult thing to compile, and no examination at all of the systemic barriers women face, than men don’t. Agreed totally that trying to create a blueprint for women from men is just so amazingly wrongheaded!

On the 33k women lost to STEM per year, annoyingly they didn’t link to the research, but the whole tone of that was really disturbing too, beyond your points about lack of research focused on male students. The subtext was “I couldn’t have had a family without this lovely fellowship”, which is basically “You’re screwed unless you get lucky and get a fellowship too”.

Atmospheric scientist Dr Paola Crippa, described how working in science is an “exciting and rewarding career.” However, she added: “It can be tough to balance things like caring for a family when working in a research environment in particular, where funding is often limited.”

Dr Crippa also said she would have had to make a tough decision between furthering her research and looking after her young daughter had she not received a fellowship.

How the fuck is this helpful?



A great little piece on why we should talk about diversity in STEM.

“People sometimes see me talking about sexism/racism/homophobia/etc in academic science and say I should instead “focus on the science.” As though science is carried out by magical science robots who are immune to human failings and biases. As though scientists in underrepresented groups can just “focus on the science” while being constantly reminded (subtly or blatantly) that they “don’t belong” in academia.”



Suw, I completely agree. If anything, the article highlights how hard it still is to have a successful career and children if you’re a woman. I’d really love to see a similar article for men.



Including Diverse Voices in Science Stories
A great little piece highlighting how easy it is to create stereotypes and suggesting some ways to help correct this. Really worth bookmarking for the links to organisations that are helping to correct stereotyped views of the people who work in STEM.



This is at once a really sad and a really awesome story. It shows how early the leaky pipeline begins but also shows how social media can be a force for real good.

There Was A Huge Outpouring Of Support For This Little Girl Who Got Bullied For Loving Bugs

A girl, Spohie, was getting bullied for her love of invertebrates so her mum reached out to the Entomology Society of Canada who then tweeted asking for people to send words of encouragement to Sophie and she ended up getting encouragement and support from around the world.



Are universities secretly sexist?
This article starts with some appalling stats on the number of women at the higher levels of academia and some discussion of the causes, but I think that this quote really gets the heart of the issue,

Ms Nyamayaro, who runs a UN project to engage male support for gender equality, says part of the problem has been that the gender gap has not been presented as everyone’s responsibility.

“It’s been seen as a women’s issue, lead by women and for women. We haven’t done a good job in engaging the other half of society,” she says.

Are STEM Syllabi Gendered?’ A Feminist Professor Says Women Can’t Do Science
I really need to get an eye-roll emoji.

European Space Agency accused of ‘having a problem with promoting women’
This is an interesting piece because it highlights one of the problems we have addressing sexism in the modern workplace,

Schulz said she has never experienced direct sexism at ESA, but felt she had to work harder to prove her worth. “As a woman, you always have to be better than the men,” she said. “I make sure in meetings that I don’t get too excited. If a man gets excited he’s determined. If a woman does, she’s emotional or hysterical.”

Sexism is no longer about male colleagues slapping bums and oggling boobs but it is about microaggressions which are so much harder to prove. They’re also much more unconscious which makes it hard to blame someone for them. But the claims of sexism in ESA do not appear that surprising, not just from the fact that there are hardly any senior women, but because something like shirtgate could not have happened in an environment that was not unconsciously sexist.



Women and the History of Peer Review at the Royal Society

… male referees sometimes included their personal opinions about female authors in their referee reports. Some female authors were cautioned against being ‘too ambitious’, or for using ‘emotional’ language. The private lives and marriage status of female authors were sometimes discussed too, not in terms of who they published with, but whether they would stay in the field after starting a family. Comments like these would be cut and pasted by the Secretary and then sent to authors, so that they did not see the original report or such remarks. Although opinions such as these were of their time, comments about female author’s work would sometimes be judged along these lines until the 1980s, when the referee reports became more formalized and professional in tone.



Grants, cupcakes and the delicate balance of being a scientist mother
This is an interesting piece, but it adheres to that common trope that work-life balance is only of interest/relevance to parents. I’m waiting for the day when I see someone writing a similar article about having to get home to look after their dog (or maybe I should just write it myself!).



An Ivy League professor on why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color: ‘We don’t want them’
A provocative article that highlights the ways in which institutions can ‘talk the talk’ about increasing diversity while failing to ‘walk the walk’.

First, the word “quality” is used to dismiss people of color who are otherwise competitive for faculty positions. Even those people on search committees that appear to be dedicated to access and equity will point to “quality” or lack of “quality” as a reason for not hiring a person of color.

Typically, “quality” means that the person didn’t go to an elite institution for their Ph.D. or wasn’t mentored by a prominent person in the field. What people forget is that attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.

It also has a great explanation of why we need diversity.

Having a diverse faculty — in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion — adds greatly to the experiences of students in the classroom. It challenges them — given that they are likely not to have had diversity in their K-12 classroom teachers — to think differently about who produces knowledge. It also challenges them to move away from a “white-centered” approach to one that is inclusive of many different voices and perspectives.

Equity and diversity plans won’t solve the Canada Research Chair program’s gender problem
An interesting look at why there aren’t many women at the top of academia. The conclusion of the article is that,

if the middle rungs on the career ladder are missing, it is pretty damned difficult to rise to the top.

Why do women leave science and engineering?
This was a link from the previous article and is fascinating. It’s a blogpost on research that looked at why women leave STEM. The author found,

that the most important driver of excess female exits from engineering is dissatisfaction over pay and promotion opportunities, a factor explaining about 60% of the differential gender gap in exit rates.
and concludes that,
This suggests that a lack of mentoring and networks, or discrimination by managers and co-workers are the more promising of the existing explanations for excess female exits from engineering.
This has great implications for ALD.


Women in film

7 Things I Learned When I Was The Only Girl In My Physics Class
A really insightful listicle that largely repeats what we’ve seen elsewhere except for this one point which I think is really important,

Because I made being a girl my defining feature in that class, I weirdly felt threatened by anyone who tried to steal my crown. Even when I started my physics degree, I was wary of other women in my year – about a fifth of my 250-odd classmates were female during my degree. I was constantly measuring myself against how well they did on exams, how many societies they were part of, how many languages they spoke – the list goes on.

It wasn’t until I started working and became friends with women who worked in the same field that I realised how powerful and important it is to have a support network of other people like you. Yes, you can learn a lot from all sorts of people when you’re getting started in a career (even men!). But at the end of the day, when you’re feeling disheartened or it’s all gone wrong, you need someone there who’s been through the same thing and can truly empathise. A lot of problems don’t seem half as bad when you realise other people have them too.



Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender
This is a new paper published in PLoS Biology with some interesting findings, summarised in these two press releases,
Study finds female faculty are underrepresented in genomics
Study finds female scientists collaborate differently

Women, diversity in STEM focus of ADVANCE grant to Clemson
A multi-million dollar project has been launched to improve the diversity of faculty at Clemson University. The specific goals are to,

  • Transform the culture and improve the campus climate to reduce bias and implicit bias against women and minority faculty;
  • Increase the representation of women in STEM fields;
  • Ensure equitable workload distributions so appointments to committees, special projects and other non-academic activities are assigned equally across the faculty;
  • Enhance faculty mentoring and leadership development to support all faculty and increase retention; and Implement family-friendly policies to help improve recruitment and retention of world-class faculty.
    This could be a project worth keeping an eye on.

These Are The 7 Things Keeping Women Out Of Science Careers
This is a few years old but as it was inspired by ALD I thought it worth sharing, especially as it’s a great listicle with some useful links.

A response to ‘Dear fresher females studying STEM’
A great response to an insulting opinion piece that claimed that women were not marginalised in STEM.

Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truthtelling
A really nuanced look at how to tackle bullying within academia. Highly recommended.



Too flirty? Too fertile? It’s tough to be the right kind of woman in academia
While I think some of this is down to cultural differences, it doesn’t excuse the misogyny, even if it is disguised as concern.



New Johnson & Johnson Chair honors Susan Lindquist, role model for women in science
I’ve not heard of Susan Linquist but she sounds like an amazing scientist. Following her death this year a Chair has been established in her honour, for Women in Science at Whitehead Institute, to be awarded to a distinguished female scientist who is advancing biomedical research.



STEM women in the time of Trump: An open letter from and to female scientists
Fearful of Trump’s views on women and science, a group of them have written an open letter and a growing group of scientists declaring the need for science to commit to supporting diversity of background and thought.

CSIRO covered up sexual harassment and bullying at astronomy department, say top scientists
The title says it all. Despicable.

Science’s Minority Talent Pool Is Growing—but Draining Away
This really highlights how we need to tackle the underlying causes rather than implementing bespoke schemes at each ‘hole’. We’ve increased the number of minority PhD students but this is not translating into academic positions.

Would you ask a male academic the same question?
A great blogpost highlight how women with seniority are still treated more like secretaries than the highly qualified academics they really are.

A bit of good news that most ecologists weren’t expecting: recent ecology hires are gender balanced (updated periodically)
This is good news, though I don’t know if it’s revelatory as it’s being portrayed. Women are doing well at getting academic positions but the problem is that there’s no indication of what these positions are. There’s been a good increase in the percentage of women holding early career positions but that’s not translating into more senior positions and this data doesn’t show whether this is still the case or not.

A Family-Friendly Policy That’s Friendliest to Male Professors
When good policy initiatives go bad. Unis that allow both men and women with children to take longer to obtain tenure end up hiring more men because the men used the extra time to get publications while the women used it, as they were supposed to, on childcare