Women in Science: Why So Few?
We often hear that there are fewer women than men in science. How can that be?
Posted Aug 11, 2015
The smaller number of women with jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is an established fact. This is a situation that is difficult to understand considering that, despite stereotypes to the contrary, there are no sex differences in math screening tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (Lindberg et al., 2010). In fact, women get better school grades than men in practically every school subjects, including math and science (Voyer & Voyer, 2014). Therefore, basic abilities in relevant fields cannot explain the discrepancies in the number of men and women in STEM fields.
Recently, issues relevant to inherent sexism in the sciences have received much attention when Physiology and Medicine Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt made statements that led to a storm of media attention (just Google “tim hunt” to get an idea of the extent of that attention). I will not get into the details of this particular case as it has already been covered to death! However, many observers and women-scientists essentially interpreted his remarks as reflection of a deep-rooted misogyny that has kept women out of science. I will not pursue this view here other than to say that this is only one of the factors that might account for the small number of women in science. (For more information, you might want to read this Time magazine article.)
Moving away from media hype, I prefer to discuss explanations of the “women in science” issues that are based on documented facts and research. In fact, whenever I think about this issue, a paper published in Psychological Bulletin (the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association) by Ceci, Williams, & Barnett (2009) comes to mind. This paper focused on relevant biological and social factors that might account for the finding that there are fewer women than men in math-intensive fields. This is a complex question and it is difficult to do justice to their paper in a short blog post. However, the factors that they singled out in their conclusions come mostly to social rather than biological factors. First, math-proficient women often prefer fields that are less math-intensive (such as biology, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine; I would add psychology to this list as I view that area as a science). This points to factors relevant to women’s interests. However, when math-proficient women do choose math-intensive careers, they are more likely to drop out. This aspect likely involves a complex mix of social factors (that might include the alleged misogyny of some scientists). In addition, performance on entrance tests (such as the Graduate Record Examination – Quantitative) can account for some of the variance as more men typically score in the extreme math-proficient range on such tests. Arguably, there might be some biological influences here (e.g., sex hormones and their effect on brain development) but this is actually a tenuous link as sex differences in the brain are quite unclear (see my series of posts relevant to this question, starting here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/perceptual-asymmetries/201406/sexin...). In reality, I would expect that, if there are actually sex differences on entrance tests, they are mostly due to social factors (e.g., stereotype threat). Regardless of the cause of this male advantage in these math tests, it is presumed that, as a result, men are more likely to gain admission in programs requiring math entrance tests. However, finding of non-existent sex differences in these tests by Lindberg et al. (2010) weakens this explanation. Ceci et al. also argued that, even if they could gain admission to math-intensive university program, math-competent women are more likely than men to also have high verbal competence. This opens options for them in fields that are not math-intensive, such as the humanities or law and this might also influence their lack of interest in math-intensive fields. Finally, in some math-intensive fields, women with children are penalized in consideration for promotion, a clear social factor. Aside from these factors, Ceci et al. argued that math ability does play a role. However, my take is that reliance on entrance tests on which men potentially have the advantage does a disservice to women, as they typically get better school grades, as I mentioned earlier.
The topic of the under-representation of women in science might seem like a new area of concerns to some people. However, Alice S. Rossi asked the question “Women in science: Why so few?” fifty years ago in an article published in Science (Rossi, 1965). So this is clearly not a new problem. In these fifty years, efforts have been made to encourage women to pursue jobs in science. For example, results of these efforts can be seen in the USA, as the National Institute of Health (NIH) has a number of relevant initiatives, listed on this webpage: http://orwh.od.nih.gov/career/initiativesadvancingwomen.asp. In Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has a program called “Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering” (see http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Women-Femmes/index_eng.asp). I expect that most developed countries have such programs. Yet, women are still lagging in science jobs. The causes of this state of affairs are numerous and, according to Ceci et al. (2009), involve mostly social factors. We can change social aspects but it takes time and efforts. In fact, we all have to be convinced of the notion that women and men are equal before social changes can take place. Unfortunately, prejudice and stereotypes are getting in the way at present. In fact, it is rather interesting that when I went looking for a picture to illustrate this post on Wikimedia Commons, using the search term “scientist” produced an overwhelming majority of men’s pictures. Thankfully, there was a “female scientists” sub-category and I picked a picture of astronaut Julie Payette as a great example of what women can do when they pursue science as a career. Still the results of my initial Wikimedia Commons search are just one manifestation of stereotypes. It will be interesting to see if another paper titled “Women in science: Why so few?” gets published fifty years from now. Hopefully not!
Ceci, S. J., Williams, W. M., & Barnett, S. M. (2009). Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 218-261.
Lindberg, S. M., Hyde, J. S., Petersen, J. L., & Linn, M. C. (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1123–1135.
Rossi, A. S. (1965). Women in science: Why so few? Science, 148, 1196-1202.
Voyer, D., & Voyer, S. D. (2014). Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1174–1204. Voyer, D., & Voyer, S. D. (2014). Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1174–1204.