Why are there fewer women working in science than men?
Things have certainly improved, with participation in many branches of science at undergraduate and graduate levels now broadly balanced between the sexes.
And yet by mid-career – as people progress into their 30s – a serious gender gap starts to appear. Climb the ladder to senior research positions and the disparity deepens.
Why is this the case? Shouldn’t we be trying to address this issue? And, if so, how?
The Conversation spoke with five leading scientists to get their views.
Cathy Foley (CSIRO): Chief of material science and engineering division.
Why is there a gender gap in science?
Only about 30% of people working in science are women and that can go down to 5% in certain areas – engineering in particular.
There’s no single reason for this.
Firstly, there are practical reasons. Quite often women have children and leave the workforce for a while. There are currently no programs that allow female scientists to re-enter the workforce where their skills are brought up to speed.
Science and technology is a field that changes all the time, so if you’re out of the workforce it takes quite a bit to catch up.
Women also often have a different career path to men – until their 30s there’s a very similar career path, and then they split. Women tend to plateau or go backwards for about 15 years.
But I’ve noticed that women’s careers kick off again in their late 40s and early 50s. So if they can hang in there, women tend to do really, really well.
What we’ve found is that many women don’t realise this, and get frustrated that their career is going backwards. So they leave the workforce or get jobs in other sectors.
There’s also frustration when women don’t feel welcome. Science can be a very blokey environment, very competitive. I’m generalising here, but women aren’t normally as competitive in the workplace as men.
All this means women don’t get the same kinds of accolades and awards, don’t apply for the same jobs, grants, prizes and can’t progress in the same way.
Why is having fewer women than men in science a problem?
This is a recipe for disaster. Women make up half the population, so we’re losing half of the brightest people to solve the world’s major problems.
We’re chopping ourselves off at the knees as a society if we’re not embracing our full human potential.
Also, the best work is done when teams are diverse. A lot of research coming out now says you’ll get better results if you have teams with different genders, different personality types, different racial backgrounds, indigenous, and people with disabilities.
They all bring a different perspective and a different way of problem solving – you don’t get the “group think”.
What can be done to redress the gender balance?
There’s no silver bullet. You need to have people at the highest level, from the prime minister to heads of industries, saying this is important and making a commitment to solving the problem. We’ve got to even up the playing field in some way.
There are some basic things that can be done. To be successful, researchers need to go to international conferences and be connected to networks. Having funding to help with childcare during these times is really important.
Also a clear path for re-entry into the workforce is crucial.
Some solutions cost money but many don’t. It’s about cultural change, and changing cultures is very difficult.
Suzanne Cory (Australian Academy of Science): Australian Academy of Science President
Why are there fewer women in science?
In the life sciences, we train as many women as we do men. At the graduate and doctoral levels, at least half the graduates are women. But then there’s a precipitous drop off.
It starts when women reach their early 30s, which often coincides with childbearing. That’s the major problem – how do you get women through that very difficult period when they are trying to juggle family and career?
Science demands long hours, great focus, and great competitiveness to be successful.
I don’t think there are barriers to women to have careers in science – I think it’s up to women to take the challenge. The door is open and they need to walk through it.
We have made considerable progress over the past decades – we’ve got a woman [Dr Megan Clark] heading CSIRO, a woman heading the Australian Research Council, the chancellors of several universities are women.
But we are still losing too many women along the way. We need to do even better.
What will happen if we don’t address this issue?
The low participation of women in career-long science is an international problem.
If Australia is to have a vibrant future, we need be extremely innovative and we need all the best brains we have.
When I entered science there were incredibly few women continuing careers in science, and that’s definitely improved.
We’ve done a lot by changing attitudes in schools and that’s reflected in the steady increase in the number of women who study science at university. But it hasn’t improved nearly as fast as I expected. In fact, I think it has plateaued.
What should be done?
We need to focus on this “drop-off” point. It’s quite simple really – women need a lot more support during that period of their lives.
The key way to help would be to have more high-quality and affordable childcare. From my own experience, that’s critical.
Secondly, I think we need to increase awareness and capabilities of young men, so that as partners they’re more willing and capable of sharing the load during that key point of child bearing.
Thirdly, funding bodies need to look very carefully at how they assess performance during the period when, inevitably, productivity is lower for women.
I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell female scientists, “We’ll keep you on no matter what” – that’s not realistic. But we do need to help them to be high performers.
We also need to encourage our young women to believe in themselves more, and encourage their drive and their willingness to take risks.
Lastly, and this is not just to help women, we need to continue working at enhancing the image of science.
Having a world where we’re as proud of our scientists as we are our sportspeople will encourage more of our best young people to take up careers in science and technology.
Mahananda Dasgupta (Australian National University): Professor, Department of Nuclear Physics, Research School of Physics and Engineering
Why do you think there are fewer women in science than men?
I think it’s because of time pressures in a fast-moving field. If you drop the ball for a year, it’s very hard to catch up and there’s a perception that feeds off that, which discourages women further.
Science is also an international playing field and it’s very competitive. If you’re trying to develop quantum memories for fast and secure information processing, it’s not just you – the whole world is trying to develop that in competition.
Early in your career, you might want to work part-time when you’re raising a family but the highly competitive nature of science is not very forgiving of that.
Why is the relative lack of women in science an important issue?
We are now a technologically-driven society and if we are losing roughly half of our trained workforce and not utilising their expertise, then it is a loss to our society and its competitiveness.
I understand mining companies are putting a lot of effort into keeping women, in fact anyone they have trained, as it’s simply smart business practice.
And that’s a good point. If we didn’t refer to this as something about women, but a workforce issue – that we’re losing half of our workforce – it would raise a lot more questions.
The case is even stronger now that we are facing skills shortages in Australia.
How do we retain that female workforce?
By strong and meaningful mentoring, which doesn’t just mean a quick meeting once a month or web-based mentoring, but real mentors who encourage women or younger people to devise strategies about how best to use their time, and what roles to apply for to advance their career.
Every person at that early stage needs support. We need to champion women scientifically – not “she’s a good person”, but “she’s an excellent physicist who’s done this great work”.
Once younger people get that reassurance that they’re good, they’re wanted in the field and their expertise is valued internationally, they will stick to it.
Equally, the employers' responsibility to provide childcare is very important.
If we are expanding and building infrastructure – why are we not building childcare facilities?
I was educated in India where, if a student is sharp, they’re encouraged to show it through participating in discussions or taking on extra-educational activities.
Teachers, family and society are proud of the achievements of the individual. This is very good for the development of the individual and society.
It does strike me that in Australia we give a lot of kudos to those who excel in sports, but if you excel in studies you are a dork, particularly among other students.
Sometimes, following talks I give in schools, students come to the carpark to ask me science questions, rather than asking them in front of the class.
How do we get away from that? I believe that to make real long-term progress we must respect and encourage intellectual achievements.
How you make society do that is difficult to know.
Maybe the media have a role in terms of highlighting intellectual and technical endeavours and achievements. I also hope it might arise naturally with the realisation the regions around us are investing heavily to lift the educational levels of their population.
Tanya Monro (University of Adelaide): Inaugural chair of photonics
Why are there fewer women in science?
There are so many complex reasons for this disparity, especially in the more senior roles. One is that senior people are looking for those that have taken similar pathways and achieved similar things to them.
That’s disadvantageous to women who have sometimes taken a different, more circuitous path.
Sometimes it’s not overt barriers but institutional cultures as well. I was really struck by the male culture during my first meeting here at the university with other physics academics.
It was really confrontational and that could discourage many women.
Job security is another big issue in retaining women. There’s a profound difference in the way women think about their career prospects at key points.
They leave academia because they can’t see any certainty. Guys generally tend to have a more relaxed attitude, and wait to see what opportunities open up.
I think we also have a tall poppy issue in Australia and perhaps women are more sensitive to that, as we often don’t want to stand out.
Why should there be more women in science?
The heart of this problem is just loss of talent. It’s increasingly obvious to me that we’re now choosing from a smaller talent pool.
Women often bring a broader set of skills to science, especially the physical sciences, and to leadership. They are often more team focused – something that’s increasingly important.
How do we achieve a better balance?
Recent moves by the Australian Research Council and their Laureate Fellowship scheme were very positive – the rules changed to give a named fellowship with extra resources to the best female scientists.
This is better than a quota. I know I’d never feel comfortable getting a position just because I was a woman.
But giving the best woman an extra opportunity – that’s a better way to do it.
One vital ingredient in supporting women is high-quality on-site childcare. This is hugely important for mums trying to come back into the workforce, and it should be a minimum requirement.
Amanda Barnard (CSIRO): Theoretical condensed matter physicist, working in theoretical and computational nanotechnology.
What’s your view on the gender imbalance in science?
In physics, the gender disparity is much starker in than the health and life sciences sector.
This is well documented, and has been measured statistically many times, but it’s all the more real when you attend an international meeting and find yourself the only female in the auditorium.
The truth is that men and women do have different skills, and different ways of approaching scientific problems, and this is something to be celebrated, not dismissed or trivialised.
Why should there be more women in science?
Without gender balance, we are like a boat with only one oar. No matter how strong the right oar is, unless we have the left oar to complement it, we’ll always be paddling in circles.
Talented female scientists are going to waste, whether they are currently employed in science or not.
Female scientists that are currently employed are often sidelined, ignored or simply dismissed as irrelevant.
More often than not I’m assumed to be a graduate student, and one of my male postdocs is assumed to be my boss.
What can be done to get more women into science, especially into senior roles?
At the undergraduate and graduate levels, participation is already reasonably balanced. It’s in mid career that gender gaps appear.
We need greater flexibility to maintain both career and family, and an acceptance from employers and colleagues that we can still be productive and successful when our work style is non-traditional or (dare I say) off site.
In terms of more senior roles, there’s the issue of corporate culture, and whether or not leadership positions are considered hospitable environments for female scientists.
Many of my female colleagues, who’ve already decided to remain in science, are not interested in pursuing senior positions.
There’s a perception that various obstacles and issues we have endured to get where we are will be amplified at senior levels.
The incentives are just not enough to make this worth while. With so few women in leadership positions now, it seems this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Australian Academy of Science is hosting Women in Chemistry, a public seminar at Parliament House, Canberra, on August 25.