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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why Are Senior Female Scientists So Heavily Outnumbered by Men?

There is some funny math in the world of academic science.

Take my graduate school for example: My class was made up of eight people -- seven women and one man, or 7 to 1. He was Snow White and we were the seven dwarves -- each with a remarkably appropriate nickname. I was Grumpy, should you be curious to know.

Snow White and at least four of the dwarves have continued on to postdoctoral research jobs. That is a 4 to 3 ratio of women who went on to do a post-doc to those that chose alternate career paths.

Everything is adding up so far, right? Lots of women are around. Lots of science is being done. All is well.

The next set of numbers is slightly puzzling, however. That is the ratio of female to male professors in our department, at a well-respected academic institution, is 48 to 7 men to women.

Interesting reversal, isn’t it? We go from 7 to 1 in grad school to roughly 1 to 7 in professorships.

Clearly, something does not compute. Where did all the women go? What is happening to all the women en route from graduate school to professorship? Where is the leak? Then again, is it a leak, or more like a pressurized stream? What is applying this pressure to force women out of a career in science? Is it societal pressure to be a mom and take care of the family? Have generations of both men and women perpetuated the belief that in a fist fight between family and work, one or the other has to crawl away a loser? Do some women lack self confidence and convince themselves that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in academic science?

It is perfectly acceptable, even commendable if women make the choice, which is rightfully theirs, to stay at home, to choose careers outside of science, or to choose, well, anything at all.

It would be all right if the scientific community is still paying catch up with the rest of society in accepting women into their midst and the ratio will equalize in the next decade (not sure there is evidence either for or against this, but I feel compelled to present it nonetheless).

It is not acceptable if women are forced to choose between a family and a career in science.

It is not acceptable if women are feeling unwelcome in the male-dominated, and occasionally inhospitable, scientific community.

It is not acceptable if their being female is detrimental to their careers.

So what is the solution? Let women make their own decisions whether to stay or to go. Remove as many obstacles and pressures as possible and let the choice be theirs. Isn’t that the whole point of the much-maligned term, feminism? Institute reasonable day care at universities. Allow for extended maternity leave and the option of paternity leave. Don’t cut women any breaks. They are no less inherently able to achieve than men, regardless of what certain Nobel Prize winners and heads of major Universities may say. They don’t need pity or hand me downs. They just need the freedom to choose.

Anna Kushnir, PhD

Anna Kushnir recently earned a doctoral degree from a top academic institution. She is also the creative force behind Lab Life, an excellent blog on the Nature Network.

Update: These statements are reflective of her experiences and opinions, but they are backed by exhaustive studies: The proportion of female faculty in her department, 14 percent, is exactly equal to the overall average from the top fifty US chemistry departments.

Wired Science is quite interested in covering other issues at the intersection of science and culture. Feel free to send us your letters.

Photo: Akash K / flickr

Original here

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