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Where Are The Women?

Percent Women in Some Science Fields at Various Stages
A new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles the question of whether discrimination can explain the low numbers of women in math-intensive science fields.

As shown in the accompanying figure, the percentage of women in fields such as physics, astronomy, computer science, chemistry and math is well below that in biology and psychology (data from NSF and AIP). For example, women account for an abysmal 13% of all physics faculty but over half of all women faculty members in psychology departments. As the authors point out in their paper's introduction, "Today, half of all MD degrees and 52% of PhDs in life sciences are awarded to women," yet only 9-16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields are held by women.

The work reported in this paper was thoroughly done and the results presented show that women in the math-intensive fields were not "discriminated against," if discrimination is defined in the way the authors insist upon. Their definition is based on the fact that journal editors accepted women's papers at the same rate as they accepted those from male authors. Oh, and funding agencies seem to be doing an exemplary job of ensuring that women who apply for grants receive a fair review. This is good, but why are we looking for evidence of discrimination at this career stage? The problem clearly starts much earlier (as shown in the above figure for postdoc and graduate student percentages).

I cannot agree, though, with the authors' conclusion that no "overt discrimination" occurred and the only explanation for the low figures shown in the above figure is the differing biological realities women face. We all know that women are faced with tough choices juggling career and family, but this happens in all fields--not just in science. We will never understand why there are so few women in math-intensive science fields if all we talk about is the problem of family vs. work. If this were the only thing going on, we would not see over half of our MDs and psychology department faculty being women, not to mention the whopping 77% of veterinarians who are women.

Where are the women who might otherwise have become a physicist, astronomer or computer scientist? Are they more affected by work-life choices than our MDs, veterinarians, biologists and psychologists? I can't see why that could possibly be the case.

I have always been struck by the huge discrepancy in the percentage of women in math-intensive fields and it should be clear from the above data that the problem starts way before these women get jobs and start writing papers and applying for grants. Lots of studies have shown that it starts early, well before high school, perhaps even in elementary school.

What is the explanation for the lack of interest by girls and young women in math-intensive careers? The authors claim it's because girls prefer "careers focusing on people as opposed to things" but I can assure you that most of my career as a woman in a math-intensive field has been focused on people! I always loved math and never thought of it as having more to do with "things" than people, so while I'm sure this survey result is true, it says more about the way math is taught to kids (dry, boring, irrelevant) than it does about real work being done in math-intensive fields.

My interest in this goes way beyond the merely curious, since I spent over twenty years of my career as one data point in that tiny percentage of women chemistry faculty. For most of that time I was, in fact, the only woman in my department. Every chance I got, I tried to show young girls, particularly those at the critical seventh-grade juncture, that it was possible to be both scientist, wife and mother, but there's only so much one woman can do.

So, I have more than a passing interest in this topic and would have loved to read a paper that addressed the major fact of my life as a scientist, that I was often the only one of "my kind" in a field that I loved. Once, when I tried to explain how hard it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field to one of my super-sharp female students who had decided to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher she said, "I don't know why anybody would choose that."

And, yes, that's the issue: why would I choose to try to do what nobody who looked like me seemed to be attempting? Well, it was simple: I loved it. I loved the work, loved the math, loved everything about science. And I still do. 

What I didn't love was never having any friends who were "like me" and having little in common with the other women I came in contact with, if I was lucky enough to have time for friendships. I also grew weary of having to justify my opinion as just my opinion and not, somehow, representative of the entire female gender. And we won't even talk about the guy who told me during my job interview that he wasn't going to vote for me to be hired since I was a mother and "should be home with my children."

So why would anybody freely choose a life like this? As I said, I loved science, but I was also fortunate to be a student during the post-Sputnik era when lots of us were being lured toward science. In those days, my country made it clear to me that they wanted me, despite the fact that I was a girl. I needed that kind of encouragement. Girls these days still need it.

And it is this aspect of the problem, the choice that a young woman makes when she decides what interests to pursue, that was not addressed in this paper. Despite the paper's title ("Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science") we will never get to that understanding until we start paying attention to the kids, not the women who have survived the gauntlet of graduate school, postdoc and a hiring committee.


  1. They did mention education a bit, though not as much as they could have. I'm planning to pick up on it in a follow up post tomorrow/ friday if I get time

  2. Thanks, Alice - looking forward to your next post on this!

  3. Three of my four kids are girls. They are bright, eager and diverse in what they like and what they aspire to. Your commentary on the Academy paper has given me some things to think over as I see them making choices about what they want to do. My oldest is 16 and is leaning toward math/science career ideas.

    It's kind of interesting that her guidance counselor thought that psychology would be a good fit for her. I'm not suggesting that was bad advice, just that there may be something unconscious that suggests one option over another, even in the face of a diverse range.

    My second-oldest is 13 and has been leaning toward medicine/vet medicine. All very early but still, you point to the grade seven marker as an important time when strange attractors can begin to influence the system.

    Thanks for the post. It will give me something to add to the mix as Michelle and I talk with our kids about what they aspire to do.


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