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For Female scientists, discrimination is in the details

November 15, 2010


On 23 Sept., a panel of experts gathered in Washington, DC for a congressional briefing to discuss current challenges for female scientists. The panel members agreed that the current environment of academic science faulty could be changed to better support the career of female scientists, but they were not sure that legislation changes would be the best route for these changes.

The “Women in Science: 21st Century Politics and Policy” briefing was sponsored by representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), L’Oreal USA, and DISCOVER Magazine in response to recent research that concluded female scientists have more difficulty than their male colleagues in obtaining full-time, tenured faculty positions at elite universities.


A Congressional briefing called “Women in Science: 21st Century Politics and Policy” was held in September 2010. Source:

Sheril Kirshenbaum, researcher and science journalist, moderated the recent panel discussion. Source:

According to Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources at AAAS and participant in the recent congressional panel, more women are entering science careers than ever before, but their percentage of the scientific workforce tends to decrease with each career-oriented increment. While female scientists make up an majority of the undergraduate science students, they only represent a small fragment of science faculty populations across the country.


The research, which was sponsored by L’Oreal and conducted by the American Association for the Advancement in Science (AAAS), showed that over 98% of female scientists interviewed in the study said they knew a female colleague who has left the field because of what they felt were insurmountable professional barriers.

“Our priorities when we’re entering graduate school shift in a big way by the time we’re on our way to becoming tenured faculty,” says Sheril Kirshenbaum, who moderated the recent panel discussion. Kirshenbaum, a researcher in the engineering department at University of Texas at Austin (UT) and author of the book Unscientific America that explore the state of science in the United States, knows several female colleagues who have experienced obstacles in their scientific careers. “I think that affects people’s trajectory and leads to a drop off over time.” she says.

In response to the AAAS survey, which sampled 1300 male and female scientists currently working in the United States, 61% of the female respondents said they struggled to balance career and life, 52% said they experienced gender bias, and 37% said that they confronted hurdles when having or raising children while pursuing a scientific career.

These statistics came as no surprise to Malcom. While the study showed that both genders struggle with getting support for their scientific careers, Malcom says that women often feel their performances are judged by an arbitrary scorecard in university settings, which may lead to women choosing to leave an academic research career behind. “We get some different choices being made. Not necessarily a leaking, but a different set of choices—like opting for industry.”

Industry sometimes provides female scientists with greater flexibility and more support in their careers than academia currently offers, according to Malcom. For instance, some companies offer their female employees with emergency daycare benefits—identified as a major dilemma for working scientists by 50% of female respondents to the AAAS survey—which began when they started getting more female associates. Malcom says that private companies are often willing to negotiate scheduling, accept work done remotely, and provide clear expectations. “They did the math, and they determined that it was a lot cheaper to help people arrange their lives,” said Malcom.

But academic institutions have not done the math as quickly as industry. They have been slow to adapt to the needs of their female employees. And when they do, it’s tends to be on a case-by-case basis. “I’ve talked to a lot of very senior women who have made incredible contributions to science, whom everybody recognizes as superstars, and they all have something in common: an institution that was willing to be flexible and invest in them,” says Malcom.

The panel discussed several solutions that would create more flexible and support institutions. These solutions included regular gender-bias audits, career workshops, and more flexible work options to help scientists with families maintain their careers. These options include flexible hours, work-from-home programs, and part-time schedules for scientists who shoulder the biological and cultural responsibilities of having children. “[There is] this notion that you have to be in the lab all the time, that you have to be seen. Your physical presence becomes a proxy for your productivity,” said Malcom.

Another solution discussed was the expansion of mentoring programs under the Title IX: The Education Amendment Act of 1972. Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in all educational activities, has been controversial in its application to college and high school sport activities, which some critics have argued actually discriminates against male athletics while creating opportunities for female athletes.

Some analysts believe that using Title IX to increase the number of female science faulty members at academic universities may do less to help women, and more to hurt the next generation of men in STEM. Jamie Vernon, assistant director for biology labs at American University and a member of the women in science expert panel, has stated that he is not sure that legislation is in the best way to help women in science on his blog.

But Vernon and most of the panelists agreed that changes in academia were in order to support female scientists balance their work and family life, but exactly how to implement and regulate these changes remains an unanswered question. In the meantime, multiple efforts are underway to bring more visibility to the unequal distribution of women in science and encourage a new generation of women to see it as a viable career path.

“You have to move on many fronts. Because the face of discrimination is not just the issue of how someone is treated, it is also the kinds of structures that are in place which legitimize certain treatment,” Malcom told BioTechniques.


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