If you want to know what science tells us about the female of our species, there’s no better place to begin than by understanding the experiences of women working in science today. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which keeps global figures on women in science, estimates that in 2018 just a little more than a quarter of all researchers in the world were women. In North America and Western Europe, female researchers were 32 percent of the population. In Ethiopia, the proportion of female researchers was only 13 percent.
The common trend is for women to be around in high numbers at the undergraduate level but to thin out as they move up the ranks. This is best explained by the perennial problem of child care, which lifts women out of their jobs at precisely the moment their male colleagues are putting in more hours and being promoted. When researchers Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden published a book on this subject, titled Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, they found that married mothers of young children in the United States were a third less likely to receive tenure-track jobs than married fathers of young children. This isn’t a matter of women being less talented. Unmarried, childless women are 4 percent more likely to get these jobs than unmarried, childless men.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics runs an annual survey to pick apart how people spend their hours. Women now make up almost half the labor force, yet in 2016 the bureau found that women spent about half an hour more every day than men doing household work. On an average day, a fifth of men did housework, compared with nearly half of women. In households with children under the age of six, men spent less than half as much time as women taking physical care of these children. At work, on the other hand, men spent fifty-two minutes a day longer on the job than women did.
These discrepancies partly explain why workplaces look the way they do. A man who’s able to commit more time to the office or laboratory is naturally more likely to do better in his career than a woman who can’t. When decisions are made over who should take maternity or paternity leave, it’s also almost always mothers who take time out. Small individual choices, multiplied over millions of households, can have an enormous impact on how society looks. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the United States estimates that in 2018 women working full time earned only seventy-nine cents for every dollar that a man earned. In the United Kingdom, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. But today, according to the Office for National Statistics, a gender pay gap of more than 18 percent still exists, although it’s falling. In the scientific and technical activities sector this gap is as big as 24 percent.
Housework and motherhood aren’t the only things affecting gender balance. There’s outright sexism, too. In a study published in 2016, psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University explored the possibility of gender bias in recruitment by sending out fake job applications for a vacancy of laboratory manager. Every application was identical except that half were given a female name and half a male name. When they were asked to comment on these potential employees, scientists rated women significantly
lower in competence and hireability. They were also less willing to mentor them and offered far lower starting salaries. The only difference, of course, was that these applicants appeared to be female. Interestingly, the authors wrote in their paper, which appeared in the journal
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.” Gender bias is so steeped in the culture, their results implied, that women were themselves discriminating against other women.
Another study, published in the world’s largest scientific journal, PLOS ONE, looked at how male biology students rated their female counterparts. Cultural anthropologist Dan Grunspan, biologist Sarah Eddy, and their colleagues asked hundreds of undergraduates at the University of Washington what they thought about how well others in their class were performing. “Results reveal that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content,” they wrote. This didn’t reflect reality. Male grades were overestimated—by men—by 0.57 points on a four-point grade scale. Female students didn’t show the same gender bias. The year before, PLOS ONE had been forced to apologize after one of its own peer reviewers suggested that two female evolutionary geneticists who had authored a paper should add one or two male coauthors. The paper itself was about gender differences among doctorates. “Perhaps it is not so surprising that
on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students,” wrote the reviewer.
Another problem in parts of the sciences, the extent of which is only now being laid bare, is sexual harassment. In 2016 virus researcher Michael Katze was banned from entering the laboratory he headed at the University of Washington following a string of serious complaints, which included the sexual harassment of at least two employees. BuzzFeed News (which Katze tried to sue to block the release of documents) ran a lengthy account of the subsequent investigation, revealing that he had hired one employee “on the implicit
condition that she submit to his sexual demands.” His case wasn’t an exception. In 2017 California Institute of Technology suspended a professor of theoretical astrophysics, Christian Ott, for also sexually harassing students. The same year two female students at the University of California, Berkeley, filed a legal complaint against assistant professor Blake Wentworth, who they claimed had sexually harassed them repeatedly, including inappropriate touching. This was not long after a prominent astronomer at the same university, Geoff Marcy, was found guilty of sexually harassing women over many years.
So here, in all the statistics on housework, pregnancy, child care, gender bias, and harassment, we have some explanations for why so few women are at the top in science and engineering. Rather than falling into Lawrence Summers’s tantalizing trap of assuming the world looks this way because it’s the natural order of things, take a step back. Imbalance in the sciences is at least partly because women face a web of pressures throughout their lives, which men often don’t face.
As bleak as the picture is in some places and some fields, the statistics also reveal exceptions. In certain subjects, women tend to outnumber men both at the university level and in the workplace. There are usually more women than men studying the life sciences and psychology. And in some regions, women are much better represented in science overall, showing that culture is also at play. In Bolivia, women account for 63 percent of all scientific researchers. In central Asia they are almost half. In India women make up a third of all students in engineering courses. Iran, similarly, has high proportions of female scientists and engineers. Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to have won the prestigious Fields medal, was born in Tehran. If women were less capable of doing science than men, we wouldn’t see these variations, proving again that the story is more complicated than it appears.