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
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).
I have regrets that I may have missed the opportunity to have children.
Maybe I should have gotten pregnant while I was in grad school?
I think the problem is that the guys all have wives who (often) don't work
and I'm expected to put in the same hours and I don't know when I'll get
all the homes stuff done. I can't imagine handling kids on top of being
a new professor.
My feeling is that I need to take time now, since my son will not be a
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,
I sincerely question whether my colleagues cried their way to work after
leaving a sick child in the care of someone else.
Yes [I spend more time at home], and I think the world would be a better
place if more men felt this way.
I refuse to work excessive hours these days as I've learnt from experience
that I can spend less time in the office and achieve more if I give myself
time to enjoy myself out of the office. Anyone that questions my devotion
to work gets a lecture on managing their own time better.
"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.
The management team has eliminated me from serious consideration because
of my family.
When I needed to limit my on-call hours during the last month of my pregnancy,
I was told I wasn't fulfilling my obligations. However, when John hurt
his knee skiing and needed time off for physical therapy, it was treated
as perfectly acceptable. (Waxman, 296)
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
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
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.
I was always very shy in the lab, afraid to touch things, lest I twiddle
a dial that might set the entire building aflame.
I did have to be taught at an embarrassingly late age that there was a
convention to the way screws turned.
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.
I was intelligent enough to understand the basic things the professors
were talking about, but when they tried to back up or reinforce some points
with car engine examples, I never really got anything out of it. I finally
asked some guy in my class who worked on cars to tell me how the 'expanding-gas-in-a-piston'
was related to real cars, and I learned a lot from it. It turns out that
it doesn't take that much more explanation to get from the piston to a
very basic understanding of a car engine - in fact it only took about 5
minutes for this guy to explain it to me. I'd like to see professors just
explain these examples more fully rather than delete them from their lectures.
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.
As a teenager I started going to hobby astronomy courses, but I was put
off in the end by the all male environment and the negligence of the tutor.
I was ignored as he could not handle a girl being interested in it and
joining the club.
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
I think that at some point, all the women I went to graduate school with
made the decision that they would rather be smart than feminine.
I had learned that I was strong, and that my stubbornness had borne fruit
many times before. I knew that I could handle responsibility. And, most
importantly, I had never been told that being curious-asking questions,
seeking answers-and that being strong was not appropriate for a woman.
Slightly more than half of the survey respondents reported trouble with
this double bind. In one article, this very problem is effectively discussed:
I felt I lost cred[ibility] by wearing these feminine attire.
When men (or women) want to put me down, or don't like me, this designation
of "bitch" when I'm aggressive comes up. I'll admit I'm sensitive to it
and have tried to soften my image. I've found that men at work rarely worry
about this even though they are frequently even more cut-throat than I.
They EXPECT me to be nicer. So while I'm the average in "niceness", I'm
criticized for being a ball-buster.
Yes, I experienced this. It was almost always better to be a bitch.
And if we make a point with emotion, it is assumed that we must have PMS
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.
The man scientist is aggressive; the woman scientist is pushy; He is careful
about details; she is picky; He loses his temper because he's so involved
in his job; she's bitchy; He follows through; she doesn't know when to
quit; He makes wise judgments; she reveals her prejudices; He isn't afraid
to say what he thinks; she's opinionated; He's discreet; she's secretive.
And then we turn to the science administrator in which He's a stern taskmaker;
she's difficult to work for; He exercises authority; she's tyrannical;
He is depressed (or hung over) so everyone tiptoes past his office; she's
moody so it must be that time of the month. (Ramaley, 26)
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.
Didn't have any of these in particular.
Not something I really am conscious about.
Some also had siblings who served as role models.
The women in my family have traditionally been educated and well-respected.
I didn't have any female role models or mentors other than my mother.
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.
I wish I could have met a successful senior scientists who had dealt with
the issues I knew I would be facing-child care, parenting, sexism (Waxman,
If I had the choice of a female [advisor], I would choose one. She would
be a role model in regard to how to dress, how to act at a conference,
what to do when someone is curt to you. I would like to have someone who
can show that I can do it. (Etzkowitz, 52)
By graduate school, I was disappointed by the apparent lack of women in
the sciences. I chose a post-doc position partly because I'd have a woman
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
Major problem with me: I don't derive much pleasure, pride, or satisfaction
of any kind from my achievements.
Biggie. Hurts more than anything else, shooting myself in the foot with
no self-confidence. If I don't have confidence in myself, it's hard to
get others to: fund, work for, hire, respect, etc. me.
This is a terrible problem. Despite the fact that I have done very well,
gotten some prestigious fellowships, and managed to get a good job as an
assistant professor without too much struggle, I still suffer from this.
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
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
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.
These guys just don't see the options available to them - either the can't
conceive of them at all, or they're too afraid to take the plunge into
something different. Why do women see the options, when men don't?
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.
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?
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).
Poor self esteem
A lack (or presence) of mentors or role models
The unfemininity of science.
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...)
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)?
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?
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,
Are there others that I missed, or didn't fit into the category, or anything
else you want to say?
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