I’m participating in a seminar series about providing scientific outreach outside of our academic bubble. The other week, a man came to talk to us about outreach to the K-12 set. He talked about his work with educational outreach while getting his PhD and then continued talking about how his involvement with the university for many, many years allowed him to introduce a whole new generation of kids to science and research. Heartwarming, right? Yeah “¦ not so fast, Sparky.
During his lecture he mentioned that in middle school, girls often drop out of science. That’s totally true. Middle school girls do tend to drop out of science. I was bopping my head along in agreement, thinking he’d help us figure out why and what we can do to help. And he does, but what he said was not at all what I was expecting. He explains to us that in middle school, girls become more interested in makeup and boys, so they stop speaking up in science classes. Apparently, it’d make them less attractive. And I just about lost my shit. No really, I badgered him for a quarter of an hour about how sexism in the class room, self-fulfilling prophecies, and a general culture that discourages girls from science might, MIGHT, play a bigger role than makeup. He sort of conceded at the end, mostly, I think, to shut me up.
STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines are slowly seeing a greater parity in gender presence, at least at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Engineering less so, but in the life sciences, the male/female ratio is approximately 1:1. Women received more than half of the graduate degrees awarded in the life sciences and yet they are still falling behind in the number of professorships held compared to men, especially in more math-focused areas.
There is significant evidence to support the “stereotype threat” hypothesis ““ basically, if you’re asked to identify with a certain group, you’re more likely to do worse on an assessment of a skill related to a stereotype. So when women are told they are worse at math by society at large, being asked to self-identify as women (by say, checking FEMALE on a form) triggers this stereotype threat response and women subsequently do worse on a math assessment than either men or other women who have not had to trigger the stereotype threat response.
Even when women get past the first hurdle, others still loom in the STEM fields. There’s still significant debate about institutionalized sexism within academia. A recent study (apologies that I haven’t gotten a chance to read this and properly asses its merits) suggests that hiring, grants, and publication do not seem to be an issue, but social factors seem to play a significant role in these differences in representation in academia at the professional level. However, other studies point to subtle discrimination: women were more likely to have weaker letters of recommendation than men, with more doubtful statements (“she MAY be” versus “he IS”) and a larger focus on less valued traits, such as the ability to work in a team.
Overall, however, people tend to agree that social factors and especially the family/career choice present women with an additional hurdle. Tenure-track positions are difficult to navigate if one desires to have children. Many of my female colleagues talk about the best time to have children, often debating between having children while in grad school or after they reach tenure. While my university offers a support group for grad students and young women on faculty with families, there is still a startling lack of support in academia as a whole. I have yet to have a conversation with a male colleague about planning children around work.
Those problems, the social factors, the structure of academia, affect all female academics. Each discipline has its own set of opportunities and obstacles. I started this piece intending to think just about science, but after reading and thinking and writing, I want it to be broader. I want to use a series of posts to talk in depth about issues facing women at all levels of academia, from women about to enter college all the way up through professorships. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about and discuss, let me know in the comments and I will address it. If there’s anything that I’ve learned in academia so far it’s that having an open, communicative group of kick-ass women to talk to and learn from makes the whole process so much easier.