The data on the dearth of women in science is clear and far reaching. Women are underrepresented along the pathway from undergraduate to faculty to leadership positions in most research and scientific communities. This is particularly true for women of color.
Progress in the last twenty years has been slow and erratic. For example, in 2014, women of color earned fewer than 12 percent of science and engineering degrees and made up less than seven percent of the scientific and engineering workforce. Of special concern, the number of African American women who have completed degrees in computer sciences, mathematics and statistics has declined. According to the National Science Foundation, African American women earned 2,777 bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2004 and only 1,463 computer science degrees in 2014. However, not all challenges in women’s participation in science can be defined as a “pipeline” problem. For example, women received more bachelor’s degrees than men in biology yet are less likely to be represented in academic leadership and as grant recipients. In 2014, 58 percent of biology degrees were conferred to women. Latina and African American women also out-number Latino and African American men in biology. Yet, the composition of faculty and leadership in the nation’s elite labs is still male dominated. In many ways, intentional or not, the culture and structure of scientific training is gendered and often hetero-normative and thus replete with implicit/explicit biases. Even in cases where women have been close to attaining science degrees, their entry into science and technology fields may be hampered by level of confidence and social factors.
There is growing evidence of the many ways in which bias toward male scientists negatively impacts women scientists in their hireability, starting salary and access to mentoring. Even factors such as the rate of citations for similar publications, presumed to be independent, ungendered and neutral suggests women’s publications receive 10 percent fewer citations than men’s publications with similar properties. The kicker is that males get a bonus from this bias in citation. That is, men receive six percent more citations than women for the same type of papers. Research suggests that underrepresentation of women in science, especially women of color, may in part be the result of interpersonal interactions. Research examining the experience of women in science describe a history of privileging norms of success that favor men. The work of science can often be competitive, individualistic, and solitary and may not reflect the work styles and communication preferences or approaches of non-traditional scientist, be they minority men or women. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some women that favor competitive, individualistic and solitary environments or men that prefer a cooperative and collaborative style. However, the literature demonstrates more workplace bias against women than men. Just as in other sectors, the experience of women in science is marred by feelings of isolation, feelings of invisibility or hypervisibility, macro- and microaggressions. These experiences send a message to women of “not belonging” and then lead to misperceptions about women’s abilities and merit. In contrast, the experience of men in science is surrounded by invisible – sometimes even visible – privilege. The male advantage is unseen but exists in the ease of operating and navigating in a culture dominated by people that look like you, managed by supervisors who look like you and decision-makers who reward people who look like them.
Why it matters
The implications of fewer women engaged in the practice of scientific research and discovery means that we do not have access to the full spectrum of talented, creative, problem solving and innovative minds that science demands.
To learn more about this gap, the Moore Foundation is one of several funders involved in a five-year project of university researchers, faculty and administrators studying and evaluating existing interventions to advance the role, participation and ultimate success of women scientists in undergraduates, graduate, post-docs and faculty.
The Big Ten Academic Alliance for Women in Science Summit Series is a multi-university initiative to expand the participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Led by Rutgers University-New Brunswick, the summit will convene leaders from the Big Ten Academic Alliance to further best practices for the recruitment and retention of junior faculty, post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate women, with a special focus on underrepresented minority women in STEM.
Of course, many national science organizations like National Science Foundation, National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have long been concerned about the lack of women of color in science. In November 2017, NAS hosted a convening on the specific barriers for women of color in STEM. One of the background documents provided was an American Association for the Advancement of Science publication titled “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science”.
In this report, Jewell Plummer Cobb, a nationally recognized academic leader, cancer researcher and biologist wrote, “If read and internalized by policy makers, educators and employers, its message and recommendations could reverse present trends. Most of the negative experience dealt to minority women is unconscious. A careful reading of this book can make you aware. That is the first step. Then, corrective measures, both policy and programs, can change the situation for minority women in science.” The report was published in 1975. More than forty years later, the nation still struggles with eliminating disparities in advancing women in science.
Since 1975, many conferences, symposia and meetings have aired ideas about advancing women and minorities in science. We hope the Big Ten Academic Alliance for Women in Science Summit will do more. The summit is designed to focus on the lack of gender and racial diversity in the STEM labor force within and outside of the university sector and to highlight a robust assessment of data on the structural and institutional barriers, as well as point to remedies that can positively influence women staying in science.
To do this, we need to learn through program evaluation, what works and hasn’t worked to promote women in STEM and then implement those lessons into practice. The Summit presents a unique opportunity to adopt mutually reinforcing, exemplary practices that can be sustained through continued collaboration within the Big 10 Academic Alliance.
The summit will:
- Disseminate best practices and models for effectiveness for recruiting, retaining and advancing undergraduate women and women of color in STEM.
- Create partnerships between programs serving under-represented minorities and STEM programs at each institution.
- Disseminate best practices and create buy-in for culturally relevant research and evaluation, with ties to institutional research.
- Enhance partnerships with faculty in developing evaluation tools.
- Disseminate university institutional models/policy to incentivize diversity in the STEM pipeline.
- Capture industry reflections on the fit between industry needs and student preparation.
The summit will build on institutional data provided by the schools to assess current practices to advance women in science. This assessment will be an honest examination of what they have learned through program evaluation. Ultimately, the Summit will identify solutions and engage university partners in developing pilots based on the project findings.
Through this and other concerted efforts to promote the advancement of women in science we can aim to make real progress. As an advocate for diversity in philanthropy for decades, I know this work is not easy, but it is necessary if we are to remain competitive, have confidence that we are truly reaching the best researchers and aspire to meet the challenges of promoting innovation and discovery.
Debra Pérez, Ph.D. is the chief measurement, evaluation and learning officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @djoyperez.