Women in Science, Limited Edition

by Rachel Zamzow
4 November 2014

In August, Lego released a line of female scientist figurines. This move was prompted by a seven-year-old’s letter, in which she asked the company to make more girl characters and give them occupations that are more exciting than going shopping or relaxing at the beach. Now little Charlotte can play with a female paleontologist, an astronomer, or a chemist—that is, if she can get her hands on them. In what some view as a misstep by the company, Lego produced the set as a limited edition product, which sold out rapidly, leaving many consumers disappointed.

Whether intentionally or not, Lego’s actions may reflect a pervasive yet overlooked issue in the field of scientific research: it’s hard for women to stick around. Women make up less than a quarter of full-time tenured professors in science, engineering, and health disciplines, according to 2010 data from the National Science Foundation. Aside from funding issues that are causing many scientists, male or female, to leave academia, female scientists face an additional array of obstacles that may be driving them out of the lab.

In some cases, they aren’t getting hired into the labs where they aspire to work. A recent study found that elite male faculty who have received a major research award train fewer female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows than others in the life sciences . The reasons for this trend are likely complex; but unfortunately, they might just be petty. Perhaps her ponytail is too flouncy, or maybe she isn’t attractive enough to present her research at a conference. These views are indicative of the persistent, yet utterly incorrect, mentality that women aren’t cut out for science.

Women could also be leaking out of the pipeline because it’s too hard to balance work and family life. The years a woman spends undergoing scientific training in graduate school, completing postdoctoral fellowships, and eventually attaining tenure at an academic institution overlap with the time when most families decide to have children. But forming a family, as one report notes, could be to the detriment of a woman’s scientific career. Married women with children are 35% less likely to start a tenure-track job in the sciences than men in the same position. And assuming they get the job, they are 27% less likely to achieve tenure. Though another investigation found that men in the sciences also struggle to balance having a family with running a successful research career, the report nevertheless suggests that patriarchal attitudes still linger. As part of the study, a 67-year-old physics professor was asked if having children is “difficult to manage with being a scientist.” His response: “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”

Even if women get the training position or the job they want, they still face obstacles, whether they’re obvious or fly under the radar. Peter Glick at Lawrence University has studied the concept of benevolent sexism for over a decade. As opposed to outright, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism is a “kinder and gentler form of prejudice,” as Glick and his colleague Susan Fiske put it. Exhibiting this type of sexism, some men reinforce traditional gender roles and promote inequality by treating women as weak and in need of protection. In a presentation at last year’s Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, Glick described how this pattern of subtle sexist behavior might be present in scientific fields. For example, female graduate students tend to receive more praise and compliments from male advisers but are given less challenging projects. To counteract this trend, Glick proposed “wise mentoring,” in which advisers are careful to give female students critical feedback alongside encouragement.

But, unfortunately, benevolent sexism is the least of some female scientists’ worries. Sexual harassment is a common yet underreported occurrence in the sciences, especially in disciplines that require fieldwork, according to a study published in July. Compelled by hearing stories of sexual assault at field sites, lead author Kathryn Clancy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, and her colleagues collected over six hundred surveys from scientists who have conducted research in a fieldwork setting. They found that a majority of the people who completed the survey had personally experienced sexual harassment in the form of inappropriate comments or jokes. Over 20% of respondents had experienced physical sexual assault. Women were more likely to have been the target of these events than men, and it was more likely that superiors were the perpetrators in these cases. The researchers also showed that the infrastructure for reporting these occurrences was not always clear to respondents, and most were unsatisfied with the outcome of their efforts to report the events.

Clancy and her co-authors note that these experiences in the field can negatively impact a young female scientist’s career. And if she is discouraged enough to leave academia, the entire scientific community misses out on the diverse set of ideas she would have brought to the table. In a chilling yet beautifully written New York Times op-ed, Hope Jahren, a professor of Geobiology at the University of Hawaii, recently shared how her experience with sexual assault while scouting out a field site altered the trajectory of her scientific career. Though she didn’t leave academia, Jahren switched research paths to a field that requires less fieldwork. But she still looks back and wonders what might have been: “Where would I have ended up had I been the first person to report the isotope chemistry of the aquifers that underlie the ancient city of Hierapolis? I’ll never know, because I’ll never go back.”

In their conclusion, Clancy and colleagues emphasize that “principal investigators have the greatest power and responsibility to steward field sites that foster worker wellbeing and thus promote productivity and retention of junior scientists.” And at least one scientist is working to answer the call. On his blog, Terry McGlynn responded to Jahren’s piece and Clancy’s article by outlining ideas for promoting a safe work environment for his students. It’s only pioneering studies like Clancy’s, brave statements like Jahren’s, and constructive responses like McGlynn’s that will start to repair the damage done by sexual harassment, and that will, eventually, restore women’s trust in the scientific workplace. Otherwise, just as the Lego scientists were in short supply on toy store shelves, the real life female paleontologists, astronomers, chemists, and other women may only be available in limited quantities.


Rachel Zamzow is a doctoral student in Neuroscience at the University of Missouri. She studies autism spectrum disorder from the perspectives of treatment and underlying changes in brain activity. Rachel is also a freelance health and science writer, and she writes about science and surviving graduate school at her blog, Neurolore.

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