Women in Science: An Exploration of Barriers


by Andrea Grant

copyright 1995 by Andrea Grant

The current situation of women scientists is not the best. The "harder", or more mathematical, the science, the fewer women there are-physics and engineering are far behind biology and even further behind social sciences like psychology. The percentage of doctorates going to women in 1989 was: biology, 37%; chemistry, 24%; math, 18%; computer science, 16%; physical science, 11%; engineering, 8%. Also, the higher up in rank or prestige, the fewer women there are. In Physics, 15% of bachelors degrees go to women, 11% of PhDs, yet only 3% of tenured/tenure-track faculty are women. Overall, between 13 and 16 percent of all employed scientists are women.

The reasons for so few women are complex and hard to identify absolutely. Historically, men have actively kept women out of science and engineering, as women were not allowed into college until the late 1800's. While most official barriers are gone now, there are many informal and structural barriers which keep women from going into science and which keep the attrition rate higher for women than men.

A few areas causing problems are family and science lifestyle issues, socialization and how one is raised, and the few numbers of women in science. With regard to family and lifestyle, major problems reflect that the lifestyle science demands conflicts with women's family desires and needs. It's hard to have kids and work a 70-hour week. Socialization is important in that science is seen as appropriate for men but not women in our society, the lack of skills learned in a traditional female upbringing, and in causing or avoiding low self confidence/esteem. The tiny population of women scientists causes a lack of role models.

Women are kept out of science due to sexist hiring practices and sexual harassment, in what is termed the chilly climate. I did not examine factors like these-they are fairly well documented and obvious to most observers. This paper seeks to examine more subtle reasons for women's continued exclusion from science and engineering.

I conducted an informal survey of 44 women through electronic mail (see appendix A for survey), asking their opinion and personal experiences with regard to seven broad barriers. The responses were open ended and respondents were invited to comment on other barriers or issues, thus they were difficult to tabulate and analyze statistically. References to the survey are not quantitative, but rather indicate a general majority or trend in the responses. Quotes from the survey are given in this paper-any unreferenced quotes are from the survey.

Some of the most pertinent issues were related to family. This is an area of concern for all working women, but it is especially troublesome for women scientists. The traditional science career requires the scientist to nearly devote their life to the lab, spending far more than 40 hours per week at work. Similar problems exist for women in business and other high powered fields. For women, who still shoulder most of the responsibility for home and family (Hochschild), trying to work a 70-hour work week is nearly impossible.

The time-line of a traditional, academic science career is not child friendly. "Science, like professional life in general, has been organized around the assumption that society need not reproduce itself" (Holloway, 103). For traditional, academic men, there was no inherent problem in having to work the hardest in their late 20s and 30s, during grad school and as a young professor trying to earn tenure. Most men had a wife at home who either didn't work or worked a less demanding job and could take care of the house and children. This tenure clock is by its very design a huge hurdle for most women. Scientists must be most productive during the years of graduate school and early job, but this is exactly the time a woman is most likely to have children. Taking even a semester off can jeopardize a woman's career. Waiting to have children until tenure is awarded is also troublesome-tenure generally comes in the late 30s, when it is possibly dangerous or even too late to have children.

Most women scientists are married to other scientists, who must work the same long hours. Simply looking at the numbers shows that most men scientists can't be married to other scientists; that is, they are still likely to be married to a woman who can devote more time at home. "With every professional [married] woman comes a professional man, automatically. It is extremely rare to have a house husband. [But], behind almost every successful, senior, professional man is an extremely helpful wife who does not necessarily have her own full-time position" (1st annual Survey, 136).

Most of the women I surveyed felt more responsibility to the home than their spouse. Several also felt their personal life was more important than their job, but they pointed out that this was not necessarily a bad thing. They felt the culture of science needs to change to reflect scientists other lives. This same issue was noticed by N. Hewitt and E. Seymour in a large study they conducted of undergraduates in science and engineering. A major factor in attrition was dissatisfaction with the science and engineering lifestyle of total devotion (Seymour, 285).

Women in all areas are struggling with issues arising from two- career families. Twenty or thirty years ago, most wives would relocate unconditionally with the husband based on his job. Now, women are pursuing their own careers, requiring negotiations within a family about where to live. In science, especially academia, there is a shortage of jobs, leaving people with little flexibility about where to work and live. When a woman and her husband were in the same field, it could be nearly impossible to find 2 jobs in the same town; this has come to be known as the "two-body problem" (a physics pun). Approximately equal numbers of survey respondents had either moved for their spouse, vice versa, or said that they traded off ("he picked graduate school, I picked the first job location"). Several anticipated this problem, although they hadn't experienced it yet. In a different survey, "Forty-three percent of women had relocated because of a change in the employment of a spouse. Only 7 percent of the men had relocated" (Holloway, 103).

"Women graduate students, whether they are serious about their science studies or not, frequently are viewed as undedicated by faculty and fellow students" (Kahle, 81). A perception bias continues into the workplace: corporate management's doubts about women's willingness or ability to handle both work and family causes problems, "Even if these attitudes have no basis in fact, the perception of their existence by women scientists and engineers is a fact" (National Academy Press, 22). Most respondents felt their employers were supportive of them and their devotion to family. They did not feel their employer expected that they were less devoted to work, or, if the employer felt this, it wasn't a career impediment: "I do know that my direct supervisor has a similar outlook to mine. He does not 'live for work' and is flexible in working hours, etc." Several respondents did report having unsympathetic employers or graduate advisors, or were penalized for being women.

Many of the family related problems that women scientists face are due to the scientific career developing as a male only occupation. These are fairly indirect relations which will be forced to change as more and more women enter science. The masculinity of science has more direct impact on women scientists in other ways.

Most girls are still raised in a fairly traditional manner. They play with dolls, play make believe house, learn to cook. Personality traits like empathy, cooperation, and kindness are rewarded. Most boys learn to use tools, to build things with blocks or Lego sets, and learn about cars. "Masculine" traits like aggressiveness and competition are highly prized. Since science developed as a masculine pursuit, the traits that are rewarded professionally are the traditional male ones. This impacts women scientists in many ways. Women with no hands-on experience will have a disadvantage in the lab initially-right at the time she needs to gain, not lose, confidence if she is to pursue a career in science. Women can also lose confidence in lecture if car-related examples are used. By being a traditional feminine woman, women are by definition unable to exhibit the most prized traits at work.

The actual training children receive affects careers choices. For a young male contemplating a career in science, the lab is likely to be an affirming experience. He is already comfortable using tools or rigging things up in the manner of a lab setup. Many women will find this a frightening experience.

This can turn away a young woman interested in science. The majority of survey respondents indicated an interest in tools, as young children, and many credited this to their ensuring science careers.

This assumption of childhood training also comes up in lecture. Many professors, especially in thermodynamics class, use car engines as an "everyday" example that "clearly" explains the concept. For a woman who has no idea how a car works, this doesn't help:

Science is also viewed as a male area by many-our society feels it's not an entirely appropriate field for women to enter. Overcoming this gender stereotype can take a lot of work. Survey respondents overwhelmingly reported family support as a main factor in their decision to enter or stay in science. One survey found "Family encouragement... was significantly related to women's persistence in science" (Rayman, 405). This open-mindedness does not seem to have translated into the schools. At least half of the respondents mentioned discouragement by professors and/or advisors. These people apparently have less influence in a students life, since women persist regardless. Nearly all of those surveyed labeled themselves as non-traditional. "I was given books and erector sets as presents. I built scale models of airplanes. I never had a doll, though I suppose I could have bought one with my allowance" (Ajzenberg, 20). This has two interesting interpretations. First, it seems unlikely that a woman would choose science as her career if she had not been raised somewhat a "tomboy." Strict gender roles at home, a lack of lab "know-how" do not make for a likely tradition breaker. Alternatively, a woman who has already abandoned the traditional gender role would not be deterred by the "maleness" of science. Women are often not seen as very effective when they exhibit the very traits they were trained in as children. A majority of survey respondents noted that in order to succeed, they needed to relearn how to act.There is a catch-22 here, though. If a woman scientist behaves with traditional female behavior: quiet, non-competitive, suggesting instead of ordering subordinates, she is likely to be seen as ineffective, or even not intelligent. However, a woman who acts in traditional male ways: self confident, aggressive/assertive, competitive, vocal, is frequently labeled a "bitch" and hard to get along with. It is a fine line between these two, and an unfair burden placed on women. Slightly more than half of the survey respondents reported trouble with this double bind. In one article, this very problem is effectively discussed: One obvious way to relieve some of the pressure is for women scientists to see how other women handle all this. Over and over, mentoring is mentioned as a key to getting women interested in science and keeping them. "I would argue that one of the most effective, and least understood, method is mentoring" (Didion, May, 93, 336). Strangely, this did not strike a chord with the survey respondents. Some felt it hadn't made much difference whether or not they had had role models. Others pointed to male mentors as being important. Mentors of any kind are important, however: "Graduate students with advisors of the same sex, compared with those of opposite-sex advisors, published significantly more research" (Kahle, 83). A surprising number felt encouraged by other strong women in their family, even when the family member was not in science. Some also had siblings who served as role models.

Mentors can provide not only career guidance, but they also show women how to be successful, and how to combine work and family.

Just seeing a woman who has been successful in science can go a long way.

Mentors also provide encouragement. "The scientists I worked with [one summer] were so supportive of me. Without that encouragement, I wouldn't have gone into the sciences." For many women, self confidence is a problem. A female mentor would more likely have had confidence problems herself and thus be able to spot a similar problem in a protege, and intervene before it was too late. A majority of the survey respondents reported trouble with self confidence at some point.

Low confidence is worsened by people repeatedly "being surprised to discover I was in science. If ALL those people don't think I should be in science, after a while I start to think maybe they are right." Those who hadn't had problems with confidence generally credited a very supportive family, but they also recognized how important this asset had been to their science career. "Try high self-esteem ... I doubt if I could have gone into science without it!"

In the US there is a perception that there will soon be a shortage of scientists and engineers. Young people are encouraged to go into these professions. This shortage of technical personnel has come to be called "The Myth" by many younger scientists: there is in fact a shortage of jobs in academia, the traditional area for scientists (although not for engineers). Private corporations are also downsizing and cutting funding to their research labs.

Young scientists still in college may hear horror stories about 300 -400 applicants for one tenure track position, and draw the conclusion that it would be hard to succeed at all in science if they aren't given information about alternative jobs. "Unfortunately, many faculty members have a limited understanding of career options outside of academia" (Rayman, 406). In addition, women are more likely to go into academia than industry: according to Women Scientists and Engineers employed in Industry: Why so Few? 16 percent of employed scientists and engineers are women, yet only 12.3 percent of scientists in industry are women. The implication of this is unclear, however, because these numbers include social sciences like psychology, which has almost no industrial employment. Other sources give the percent of employed scientists that are women as 13, which may not be significantly different than 12.3. The survey respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they did see industry as an option.

Some women are embarking on entirely new career paths. While this isn't exactly a barrier, it does reduce the visibility of women. It is also very exciting:

Many women are becoming entrepreneurs; in biotechnology, there are several woman-owned companies. Working freelance as a consultant is also a popular option. Both of these have a variety of benefits: consulting allows a woman to schedule her own hours and is much more family- friendly. Working for yourself as a consultant, or in a woman-owed company also tends to bring much less "baggage" like the perception bias of being less dedicated. "Many women start their own businesses because they won't take all the foolishness of standard corporate organizations." Several survey respondents were doing this or knew colleagues who were, and felt it as a positive move.

There are a variety of reasons a woman might not go into science, or not continue in it. Each one singly does not seem to be an insurmountable barrier, but added together they can be quite an obstacle. Family and lifestyle considerations play an important part in many women's decisions.They often find the traditional, long hours unappealing and are working to change the face of science. How girls are brought up and what they are taught is also a component. Most women don't learn some of the basic skills of laboratory science, or things like car engines which are used as classroom examples. Family support, and the good self confidence which often derives from support from loved ones, are essential to success. Women also need to have role models, although they may not be aware of how much impact mentors can have. 

Appendix A

This is the text of the survey I sent out: How have the following manifested themselves, if at all, in your career as a scientist? Which do you find to be the more important or pressing barriers to women's scientific advancement?
  1. A lack (or presence) of "male upbringing." By this I mean things like not having learned how to use tools as a youth (important in the lab), or not knowing intimately about the workings of a car engine (often used as an example "everyone" can relate to).
  2. Poor self esteem
  3. A lack (or presence) of mentors or role models
  4. The unfemininity of science.

  5. a. Were you encouraged or discouraged by family, peers, school advisors?
    b. Did you have an interest in science that you "ignored", only to come back to it years later?
    c. What about the fine line between being "feminine" (emotional, irrational...), and discredited, or being "masculine" (aggressive and competitive, etc.) and then getting the "bitch" reputation. (Note, I am suggesting traditional gender roles here, not necessarily ones I agree with...)
  6. Family issues:

  7. a. Do you feel more responsibility to your family (the house, the kids)? possibly at the expense of "devotion" to work?
    b. Do you think your employer *expects* you are more "home" focused, thus reducing your esteem in their eyes (and therefore chance of promotion, etc), regardless of the reality?
    c. What about the "traditional" career path, and how it conflicts with childbearing (do you have kids while in graduate school, while getting tenure, or after--hoping it's not too late)?
    d. Geographic limitations--do you feel your spouse would relocate unconditionally (as was often the case for male scientists and their wives)?
  8. How about the scarcity of jobs? Women are under-represented in science, obviously, but if you look at the number getting PhDs, women are over represented in academia, where jobs are scarcest right now, and under-represented in industry, where some say there is more power, and more jobs. Would/did knowing about the alternative of industry affect your decision to stay in science, with a better hope of getting a job?
  9. Are women following different career paths than traditional? Are we getting jobs outside of academia, industry and government--using our scientific training in other ways besides research and teaching? (Consulting, business, eg.)
  10. Are there others that I missed, or didn't fit into the category, or anything else you want to say?


Ajzenberg-Selove, Fay. A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist (1994), New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Banziger, George. "Women-in-the-sciences Program at Marietta College-Focusing on Math to Keep Women in Science." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 279-292.

Chomicka, Debra, Leona Truchan, and George Gurria. "The 'Women-in-Science Day' at Alverno College-Collaboration that Leads to Success." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 306-309.

Didion, Catherine Jay. "Attracting Graduate and Undergraduate Women as Science Majors." Journal of College Science Teaching, May, 1993, 336,368.

Didion, Catherine Jay. "The Current Climate for Women in Science." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1994, 272.

Dresselhaus, Mildred, Judy Franz, and Bunny Clark. "Interventions to Increase the Participation of Women in Physics." Science, V. 263, 11 March 1994, 1392-1393.

Etzkowitz, Henry, Carol Kemelgor, Michael Neuschatz, Brian Uzzi and Joseph Alonzo. "The Paradox of Critical Mass for Women in Science." Science, V. 266, 7 October, 1994, 51-54.

Farmer, Helen, James Wardrop, Mary Anderson, and Rhonda Risinger. "Women's Career Choices: Focus on Science, Math, and Technology Careers." Journal of Counseling Psychology, (1995) V. 42, No. 2, 155-170.

Haas, Violet, and Carolyn Perrucci. Women in Scientific and Engineering Professions (1981), Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Hochschild, Arlie. The Second Shift (1989), New York, Avon Books.

Holloway, Marguerite. "A Lab of Her Own." Scientific American, November, 1993, 94-103.

Hoots, Rita. "An Outsider's Insights on Neglected Issues in Science Education: An Interview with Sheila Tobias." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 300-304.

Kahle, Jan Butler. Women in Science: A Report from the Field (1985) Philadelphia, Falmer Press.

Koritz, Helen. "Women in Science: Changing the Climate." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 260-261.

Kubanek, Anne-Marie Weidler, and Margaret Waller. "Career and Family for Women Scientists." Journal of College Science Teaching, November, 1995, 126-133.

Preston, Anne. "Where have All the Women Gone? A Study of Exit of Women from the Science and Engineering Professions." American Economic Review, (1994) V. 84, No. 5, 1446-1462.

Ramaley, Judith. Covert Discrimination and Women in the Sciences (1978), Boulder, Westview Press. (AAAS SYMPOSIA)

Rayman, Paula, and Belle Brett. "Women Science Majors: What Makes a Difference in Persistence after Graduation?" Journal of Higher Education, (1995) V. 66 No. 4, 388-414.

Seymour, Elaine. "Undergraduate Problems with Teaching and Advising SME Majors-Explaining Gender Differences in Attrition Rates." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 284-292.

Siebert, Eleanor. "Women in Science?"Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 269-272.

Tobias, Sheila. "Women in Science-Women and Science." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1994, 276-278.

Waxman, Merle. "Strategies for Improving the Representation of Women in the Medical Sciences." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1992, 293-298.

Zuckerman, Harriet, Jonathan Cole, and John Bruer, ed. The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community (1991) New Haven, Yale University Press.

--"Gender and the Culture of Science: Women in Science 93." Science, V. 260, 16 April, 1993, 383-430.

--Women Scientists and Engineers employed in Industry: Why so few? (1994) Washington D.C., National Academy Press.

--"Women in Science: 1st Annual Survey." Science, V. 255, 13 March, 1992, 1364-1387.

--"Women Scientists Lagging Industry Jobs." Journal of College Science Teaching, March/April, 1994, 264.

Return to my homepage or work page.

xagrant@yahoo.com. Last updated 4 September 2003