Women in Academia

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.

12 replies on “Women in Academia”

Great post! I spent some time on my department’s recruitment committee and there is a slightly larger percentage of women a)applying for and b)being admitted to our department in recent years. And yet, there are only 3 female faculty out of some 20-30 professors.

Women who graduate from our department tend to end up in non-research government positions or they go on to industry. Very few make it into academia.

Its depressing.

I’ve been thinking about motherhood and academia recently. Although I’m not in a position to do so in the immediate future, I do want to have kids someday. I also want to get a PhD, live and work abroad, and juggle two careers. The PhD/abroad/dual career parts I feel I have control over. The partner/kids part, less so. I feel like those have some invisible deadline, time slipping away at a steady pace, and that unnerves me.
I end up wondering if I’ll need to sacrifice other goals- living abroad, or getting my PhD- to make myself available to potential partner+family situations. After a while of thinking on this, I end up feeling frustrated and angry, because I don’t know any guys who are debating which of their personal goals they need to sacrifice for potential family. And I feel scared, because I don’t want to sacrifice one set of goals for another, but I lack examples- mentors, models- who can illustrate how such things might not fatally conflict after all.
So I’m keen on this series.

I’d love to talk about the gendering of particular disciplines if we have a chance. I’m in one of the social sciences that skews heavily male, and I often feel it would be nice to extend the conversation beyond the STEM fields on which it usually focuses.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the more male-heavy academic fields are the ones considered worthy of money and support (ie, STEM; and in the social sciences, witness how much more cash goes to economics than to anthropology). Governments promote STEM work above all else even as they slash funding for academic research. I’m not sure what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here, but it’s worth exploring. I think we have a tendency to focus on representation in fields that women traditionally are underrepresented in, and that’s good, but it would also be interesting to consider how fields that are now female-dominated – literature, the arts, even biology (versus physics) – have become somehow less academically ‘important’ than fields that men dominate.

EXACTLY! Classic case of gender norming. Why is it only problematic when women are not in male dominant fields? Where is the crisis intervention for men who do not pursue degrees in dance, social work, teaching, and English at the same rate as women? I HATE that women-dominated disciplines are viewed as unimportant. Disclosure, my discipline is heavily male and oh how my colleagues love to belittle/mock any field that is not just another sausage party. Where is the social/institutional/public praise for having so many women in education, nursing, anthropology, language, art, etc? It would be the front page of the damn NYTimes if STEM field turns the tide and had a majority women at all ranks. MIT had some shifts in a couple of departments at it actually was in the NYTimes. Women’s work in the home and outside of the home — whether by choice or some forced social constraints — is always crapped on and I hate that.

This is so interesting, and I can’t wait for future posts. I’m finishing up a post-doc position now, and have been trying to come to terms with how I want my scientific career to expand.

I know I don’t want to be a principle investigator, because I see my boss try to balance her work and family and, basically, work wins. Her husband does the majority of the child rearing and while they both seem to be fine with their choices, I can’t see myself working 60-70 hours a week and having a family, which seems to be the requirement for young assistant professors.

I’ve basically decided to go the research associate route, working for other PIs and focusing on bench work rather than grants. I should be fine with this, but I get a huge feeling of guilt whenever I mention it to other academics. I even had one older professor (a woman) tell me that I couldn’t quit, because we need more women profs.

I agree with her, but I can’t sacrifice my personal life on that alter.

Oh man, I have so much to say about this. There’s piles and piles of psychology research on so-called “expectation effects,” where people conform to how other people (consciously or unconsciously) expect them to behave. It’s why behavioral researchers try so hard to keep experimenters from knowing what the study participants are “supposed” to be doing to support the hypothesis. In schools it’s often called the “Pygmalion effect.” If teachers are told a (randomly selected) student has the potential to do really well, the student does much better than students who the teacher has been told don’t have that potential. It has HUGE implications for gender-related math/science performance and interest (not to mention race related performance differences). And different expectations for males vs females starts very early in life – parents of newly-walking male babies expect their sons to attempt walking on steeper slopes than parents of newly-walking female babies, even though the babies perform the same regardless of gender.

There’s also been a study showing that female elementary teachers can (unconsciously) pass on their math anxiety to their female students, impacting both students’ performance and beliefs about math ability. Here’s a pretty good USA Today article about it:

I’m fortunate to be in a female-dominated field (psychology, in case you couldn’t tell), and still the proportion of male professors is much higher than the proportion of male graduate students, and as the professors get more “famous,” the numbers skew even more. There’s a lot going on here.

That’s very fascinating. I only have a very basic understanding of psychology (I have a BA in it, woo woo) and the more I talk to people about education, the more I see these incredibly important phenomena being overlooked.

I would like to write a whole post about psychological phenomena in the classroom. Would you mind if I came to you with some questions?

My discipline absolutely skews male, and the subfields are very divided along gender lines. Meanwhile, my chosen subfields aren’t the female-dominated fields. People in my department assume they know who is on my dissertation committee because I’m a woman. I’ve had a conference moderator comment on the lack of “gender perspective” (that’s a quote; rage rising) in paper where it would have been inappropriate to do so. I’ve sent application packets with no mention of [woman-dominated subfield] only to receive assurances that they could use me in that capacity. I wish that I could claim a calculated barrier-busting motivation, but I just study what I love best. In my situation, the perception of what I should be doing in academia is every bit as powerful as my actual choices.

I’ve experienced something similar, although my discipline has rough gender parity among younger academics. My subfield, on the other hand, is very male-dominated, and the few women in the subfield are assumed to work on two or three topic areas. I understand your frustration.

Oh the gender perspective. Oh man. OH man. I have refused to play that game before and paid for it, too.

“In my situation, the perception of what I should be doing in academia is every bit as powerful as my actual choices.” – this is really interesting and something I’ve encountered a few times. What people expect you to do can come in conflict with what you’re actually doing.

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