I am a scientist. More specifically, I am a female scientist. Three days ago, women like myself received a bit more attention than usual when the world celebrated International Women’s Day 2012. The contributions that women have made for science and medicine were widely recognized through events, in all forms of social media, and also in an article which appeared that day in The Lancet, a highly prominent medical journal. The Lancet article highlighted the struggles of female scientists through the story of Utako Okamoto, a Japanese scientist (now 93 years old), who experienced a great deal of gender discrimination over the course of her research career. Although overt bias against women in science is relatively rare (or at least well-disguised) today, the article proclaims that something must be done to boost the number of women who make it to the top ranks of scientific research and medical practice, arguing that women can make meaningful contributions to research and should be given greater opportunities to further their career goals.
The disappointing 2009 European statistics cited by the Lancet article (females constitute 59% of university graduates but only 18% of full professors in the European Union) are echoed within my own observations at Canadian institutions. During my undergraduate years in Ottawa, I was enrolled in a Bachelor of Science program in Neuroscience. As far as I could tell, the gender stereotypes for course of study certainly appeared to be accurate: those who enrolled in the life sciences and arts were typically female, whereas those who studied computer science, mathematics, or engineering tended to be male. In spite of the fact that female students dominated programs in the life sciences, the number of female professors working in life sciences departments was startlingly low. While I was a student at this school from 2006-2010, there were 9 male (82%) professors but only 2 (18%) female professors in the neuroscience department. Of course, the gender balance discrepancy between the student body and the science faculty was not unique to my undergraduate university. After moving to Halifax and starting graduate school in 2010, I found myself in a department that had only a slightly higher proportion of female faculty members, with 4 (33.3%) female professors, one of whom was the head of the department, and 8 (66.7%) male professors. Overall, these numbers are consistent with the idea that even though many women are studying science, few make it up to more senior academic positions.
What is the state of equality for women in science? Do the statistics hint at a subversive movement to suppress the careers of women? Or could the relative scarceness of women at the higher levels of academia be attributed to other factors, such as lifestyle priorities and the nature of the academic job?
Within my own life, I don’t perceive gender discrimination to be an issue. I grew up in a middle-class, suburban neighbourhood in Ottawa, and throughout my childhood in the 1990s, was taught that women are equal to men. Asides from the occasional sexist beer or men’s razor advertisement on TV, I never really noticed any major discrimination against women, at least in North American society. With respect to employment, I have never been paid less than a male counterpart. Especially given the success of many females who are prominent in scientific research, I have never seen any compelling evidence that there are reduced funding or publishing opportunities for women. Therefore, I am skeptical of the idea that women are being pushed away from academia on the basis of gender.
However, there is no doubt in my mind that lifestyle priorities play a massive part in a woman’s decision to continue with a scientific career. Within my social circle in Halifax, I count several fellow female MSc and PhD students as my close friends. All of us are in our 20s and started graduate school at the same time. Together, we face similar issues relating to career goals and lifestyle decisions; most of us are rapidly approaching graduation and are worried about the next step. Some of us wish to start a family in the near future, while others (myself included) are inclined to devote all available energy to pursuing particular career ambitions. Regardless of our individual aspirations, whether it is possible to attain the perfect balance between a career and a family has been a constant source of debate between us. All that can be agreed upon, realistically, is that female scientists are presented with a unique set of challenges in life. The following is a somewhat wordy quote from a 2010 paper entitled “Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields”, but it sums up the conflict well:
“The tenure structure in academe demands that women having children make their greatest intellectual contributions contemporaneously with their greatest physical and emotional achievements, a feat not expected of men. When women opt out of full-time careers to have and rear children, this is a choice—constrained by biology—that men are not required to make.”
— Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams (2010)
Academic job prospects for MSc- and PhD-level graduates in science are currently dismal for males and females alike. With an extraordinarily number of highly qualified scientists flooding the job market, competition is intense and will inevitably prevent many women from ever reaching their full potential as scientists. Part of the reason is that, compared to men, women will have more trouble balancing intense careers with family duties. It has been suggested that universities could create part-time tenure-track jobs (transitioning later to full-time positions), which may be more accommodating to the lifestyles of female professors who are intent on starting a family. Logistical issues and the poor state of the global economy will create complex barriers to creating this so-called “alternative lifecourse” to a very male-centric career, but if gender equality is truly a priority for science (as the response to this year’s International Women’s Day might imply), some aspect of how research is presently conducted will certainly need to change.
Ceci, S. J. & Williams, W. M. (2010). Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 275-79.
Ceci, S. J. & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS, 108, 3157-62.