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More and More Science Grads Are Women. So Why Do So Few Make It to the Top?

Women at the top of their fields say bias is a real problem, and needs a structured approach to change.

Women are starting to see more representation in the sciences, with the US National Science Foundation reporting that around half of all science and engineering bachelor degrees now go to women. But go up the academic career ladder and a familiar pattern emerges.

The NSF's most recent data, from 2013, shows that women make up only a quarter of full professorships across science, engineering, and health. A 2014 UK government report found that just 17 percent of professors in STEM (science, tech, engineering, and maths) fields were women. Globally, men author 70 percent of peer-reviewed papers. Only 17 women have ever won a Nobel Prize in the sciences (Marie Curie got two). Think of very top-level scientists—the revered lab leaders, the publicly acknowledged pioneers, perhaps even household names—and which women come to mind?

Where are the female "rock star" scientists? (Curie, given she's been dead over 80 years, doesn't count.)

Women professors in the US with science doctorates. Image: NSF

"I think what's happened over the years, although there's been many women coming into the pipeline for many sciences, there's been a drop-off in the percentage of women as one goes higher and higher into the career ranks," Elizabeth Blackburn, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and a 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, told me in a phone call.

"I think the very important thing is probably that here's some combination of both implicit and explicit biases at work, and these pervade many professional areas, but it is particularly noticeable among the sciences."

British physicist Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and a Royal Society fellow, also said that bias was a key factor. She noted that in physics in particular, women are still massively underrepresented even at lower levels—the precise numbers of undergraduates, doctorates, and professors vary greatly across sciences, with the overall figures for women largely boosted by a large representation in biosciences and social sciences.

"Then all the biases that come into play in just about all professions come into play [in science] as well—just like there are fewer female judges than you would expect looking at the number of women entering law degrees," she said.

"I used to be baffled as to why it was that I would make a point of view and I never felt I was taken very seriously"

Blackburn and Donald spoke to me from Paris, where they last month took part in launching a global manifesto for greater gender equality in the field as part of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science campaign. As well as supporting young women in science, the manifesto asks signatories to commit to "break down the barriers that prevent women scientists from pursuing long term careers in research" and "prioritise women's access to senior positions and leadership positions in the sciences," as well as ensuring greater gender equality in leadership of commissions, committees, and board meetings.

This focus on leadership emphasises the need not only to inspire girls to get into science—a common theme of STEM campaigns—but to ensure equal opportunities to make it to the top.

The "pipeline" problem is well-documented and complex, with many reasons given as to why women may be unable, or unwilling, to follow scientific careers to higher levels.

One part of the puzzle is undoubtedly the disproportionate societal pressure on women to care for children and elderly family members (and a lack of flexibility on behalf of employers to support this). Donald said she hoped changing attitudes to parental leave would shift cultural perceptions that scientists with families or working part-time somehow aren't as serious about their work, and break down the "mummy penalty."

"Even if one has been able to manage all of that and has continued to do well in her career, then one looks at why aren't women at the very top positions?" said Blackburn. "I think part of it is that there's a lot of aspects of leadership at the higher levels, which are things that women haven't really had that much access into, such as the kinds of networking and support and mentoring that would make it a natural decision."

This cuts both ways: It can exacerbate unconscious biases among hirers who are not used to seeing women in leadership roles, but it can also put women who may be doing exceptionally well in their scientific work from taking on these top jobs.

"There were situations where I could tell that I was not included in the same kind of old boys' sorts of networking"

Both Blackburn and Donald said they had noticed bias against themselves as they progressed in their careers—the kind of implicit or unconscious biases that, for instance, lead to both men and women judging a scientist's CV more harshly if it has a woman's name on it.

Blackburn said she first really noticed a difference in how she was treated when she took on more of a leadership role. "There were situations where I could tell that I was not included in the same kind of somewhat old boys' sorts of networking, and I think decisions were being made without my participation because I wasn't really in those networks and not accepted into them," she said.

Donald noticed a similar phenomenon as her career progressed. "When I was mid-career—in my 40s or so—what I noticed was if I was in a committee meeting, I used to be baffled as to why it was that I would make a point of view and I never felt I was taken very seriously," she said.

David Ruebain, chief executive of the UK's Equality Challenge Unit, which supports equality and diversity among students and staff in higher education including through the Athena SWAN Charter, also suggested women's views in a meeting not being accorded much attention as an example of how implicit bias can manifest in academia.

While Donald said her reaction was to get angry and fight harder, she said that experiences like this likely contribute to the attrition of women scientists at each stage of the academic ladder, or stop them from attaining top positions. "They may not give up, but stop trying to put their views across, be much less influential as they could be," she said.

Of course, the problem with unconscious bias is that it's, well, unconscious. The issue is gaining increasing awareness, but it's hard to get people or institutions to change what they don't realise they're doing.

Blackburn and Donald both said that things like mentoring and structured leadership courses could help women to gain confidence and face their own and others' biases; the For Women in Science Awards also involve laureates mentoring younger talents.

Donald said that one example she came across in a chemistry department brought home to her the realisation that women are not afforded the same kind of support men take for granted: Two research fellows, male and female, joined the department at the same time. The woman overheard the man go up to a senior professor and ask him to lunch to get his advice. "And she said, 'How could I have done that?'" recalled Donald. "'It was not in the least bit inappropriate, but as a woman, if I had gone up to that male professor, it might have come across the wrong way.'"

A more structured approach to mentoring could help break down this cultural issue; a man officially inviting a new team member to a coffee with the explicit stated purpose of offering her advice would help her gain an equal footing to this informal, "boys' club"-style networking.

From the off, academic institutions need to be aware of potential biases from recruitment onwards and put the effort into actively looking for female applicants. Conferences and other science events (and, indeed, media organisations) can also do their part by thinking about their representation of women. After all, these kind of public appearances are a large part of how scientists gain renown to reach the top of their field.

Ruebain said he thought the "direction of travel is correct, but progress is slow."

At the end of the day, getting more women into science, and into the highest levels of science, is not just an issue of gender equality. "I think it's more the other way round; I think that science really suffers if you don't have the input from so many different perspectives—and I don't just mean women but other aspects of diversity as well," said Blackburn, noting that diverse perspectives are likely to lead to more innovative and creative solutions.

"You're not going to solve neurodegenerative diseases or cancers or mental illnesses by just lockstep," she said. "Look at it—we're not doing too well."

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.