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Women’s contribution to science goes unheard

Even today there are few women graduate students and even fewer women academics, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths). Why is this the case, even in 2013, and what…

Round of golf after lunch, chaps? The 9th Aircraft Engineering Research Conference, 1934. NASA

Even today there are few women graduate students and even fewer women academics, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths). Why is this the case, even in 2013, and what can we do about it?

Lower visibility of female scientists is one of many potential reasons for the under-representation of women in senior academic ranks. To succeed in academic science, researchers must produce many widely cited publications and attract independent funding. Success clearly requires doing excellent science. However, academics can also raise their profiles and improve their work through presenting their findings at major international conferences. In academic science, as in many other high profile professions, it is hard to advance if your voice is not heard and your work is not known.

In a new study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, along with 37 academics from around the world, we investigated the numbers of female and male invited speakers at six biannual congresses of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) – the most prestigious gatherings of evolutionary biologists in Europe. Male speakers invited to the congress outnumbered female speakers, a finding that was expected since women make up a smaller proportion of the pool of potential speakers. But women were under-represented even after taking this into account.

We compared the number of female and male invited speakers to the number of females and males available in the potential pool of candidate speakers. What qualifies a candidate to be considered is debatable, therefore we investigated two pools. Using sex ratio data from the world’s top ranked institutions for life sciences and first authors in the top-tier journals (Nature and Science) we found only about half as many females as expected.

This shows that high quality science led by female academics is under-represented in comparison to that of their male counterparts. If this dearth of female voices in conferences harms women’s advancement within academia, then society as a whole is also losing some of its best scientists.

On delving deeper into the data from the 2011 congress, we found women were under-represented as invited speakers, not because men were invited proportionally more than women, but because men accepted invitations more often. This result is based on a single conference in a single discipline, and the two lead authors of the study, Julia Schroeder and Hannah Dugdale, are investigating whether this trend can be generalised.

So why would men accept speaking invitations more than women? There are many reasons, but two stick out. First, the most demanding phase of a career in academic science coincides with the age at which most scientists, women and men, are starting families. In a perfect world, women and men would share the demands of building a family equally, but recent research has shown that babies matter more in the careers of female academics. Second, women are less likely than men to self-promote – behaviour that may be a form of self-defence, since studies show that it doesn’t pay for women to be seen as successful and ambitious.

The roots of these trends probably begin long before girls and boys embark on academic careers. We are conditioned from a young age to believe that caring for the children is the woman’s domain, whereas career success is the man’s domain.

You don’t believe that this is true in 2013? Test your own gender biases online. Or simply take a walk down the toy aisle at a department store and marvel at the gender specificity.

Determining the solutions to under-representation of women in STEM fields – and in positions of power in general – is beyond the scope of our expertise. But our opinion is that we could begin to remedy these major societal challenges with small steps, like insisting on non-gendered toys and clothes.

Start small, at home, with friends, nieces and nephews, grand-kids. These measures will trickle up, as youngsters grow up without implicit bias, and adults are made more aware of the biases they unconsciously harbour. Eventually women and men will be equally likely to have their voices heard – in conferences, faculty meetings and boardrooms – and society as a whole will benefit.