The Mystery Of The Missing Women Scientists

There are simply not enough women taking up careers in science, writes Zaria Gorvett, and inequalities in the hiring process, career progression, and salary may be to blame.

AsianScientist (Nov. 5, 2012) – SAQQARA, Egypt. A cracked terracotta nameplate informs bystanders that the chief medical physician is Merit Ptah.

A woman with long, neatly braided hair stands nearby. Her eyes are fixed ahead as she carries an armful of scientific instruments.

In fact, this scene is a two dimensional version of events, and it is nearly 5,000 years old. The text and portrayal are painted on her tomb.

Merit Ptah lived in ancient Egypt during the Bronze Age and is the first documented female scientist in human history.

While traditional roles for women were distinct, there were no insurmountable barriers for pioneers; later records indicate the existence of a further 100 female doctors. The early opportunities for ambitious Egyptians, regardless of gender, might be considered a promising beginning for women in science.

The situation 5,000 years later

Five millennia later, a report by the consulting group “Women in Global Science and Technology” has highlighted that in some of the world’s emerging economies, gender equality has not yet materialized.

When the group examined the participation of women in science, technology, and innovation in the European Union, the United States, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea, and India, they found that the lowest three positions were occupied by Indonesia, India, and the Republic of Korea.

Some of the parameters that were assessed included education, employment, childcare policies, equal pay, and flexible work arrangements. The complete state of inclusiveness in science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) was also rated.

The statistics are alarming. In 2010, a mere 20 percent of the students who enrolled in science and engineering courses in the Republic of Korea were female. The transition from education to work was accompanied by further attrition; 90 percent of scientific employees in South Korea and India in 2010 were men.

For careers in research, the statistics hint at a struggle for equality. While female Ph.D. students are increasingly prevalent, the proportion of graduates working in academia is low.

According to the report, Indian women held 12.7 percent of research positions in 2005. Intriguingly, engineering and technology, typically “male” subjects, constituted a substantial proportion of this research (35.7 percent). In contrast, in Indonesia where the scientific employment of women was greater, they preferred careers in the social sciences, a typically “female” subject.

These data may highlight a wider cultural trend; while the global uptake of women in mathematical sciences is persistently low, women tend to dominate in the social sciences.

The gaps, from lower employment rates in science for female graduates, to slower career progression and gender-distorted representation, require explanation. A report by the World Bank suggests that “stereotypes within the education system, norms governing gender roles in the household that constrain a woman’s choice of occupation, and employers’ attitudes toward family formation and childbearing” may be responsible for these disparities.

Do women lack intrinsic aptitude for STEM?

This explanation may appeal to traditionalists, that the genes that endow men with minds suited to technical tasks are unique to their sex.

A favorite of critics of the gender equality movement is the notion that genes for the comprehension of technical subjects are hiding on the Y chromosome. But is there any truth in it?

It is no secret that men and women’s brains are different; the further human brains are probed with neuroscientific tools, the more antithetical our thought processes appear to be.

PET scans and fMRI have enabled the rapid progression of one of the most enduring themes in science. Across all ages, male brains are 10 percent larger, and have more grey matter (neurons); women have more white matter (connections between neurons). Brain structures with a high density of receptors to steroids such as testosterone and oestrogen – including the caudate nucleus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum – all display variation between sexes.

According to a new theory of compensation, structural differences between the brains of men and women may arise from the need to counter changes induced by different sets of hormones. But when Larry Cahill, a neuroscientist at the University of California, conducted a review of research into the cognitive variation between sexes, he found that structural differences were not linked to disparities in performance.

This is congruous with the performance of girls in school, which undermines theories of female inferiority. A 2006 study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the relative attainment of children in school found that in 22 out of 30 countries, performance in science is equal in girls and boys.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this is not the case in Asia, where most learning achievement studies show that boys perform better than girls in maths and science. However, it is clear that where opportunities exist, girls are perfectly capable of competing.

If girls are just as proficient as boys, why do so few choose careers in science?

Are social prejudices the barrier to female scientific employment? Probably so, says Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society.

“The truth is that we have only just started to challenge the notion that women are good at the caring professions while men are good at logic, science, and industry,” she told the Guardian newspaper.

Ominously, these stereotypes may have permeated the hallowed halls of academia. A revealing study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences investigated the effects of inherent gender bias in the hiring process. The researchers approached 127 science faculty from research-intensive universities using the same curriculum vitae (CV) randomly assigned either a male or female name. The results of the randomized, double blinded experiment are startling.

“Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the (identically qualified) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant,” the authors wrote.

Indeed, a recent report published by the American Association of University Women found that one year after graduation, female graduates, including those that studied STEM disciplines, earned about 82 percent of the wages of their male colleagues.

Another likely compounding factor is the lack of awareness of female scientific role models. There is certainly no shortage of exceptional women scientists, even in Asia. Tu Youyou, the Chinese scientist who discovered artemisinin, the most widely prescribed antimalarial drug in the world which has saved millions of lives, should be a household name. Last month, the collaboratively built online encyclopedia Wikipedia held a mass rewrite to highlight the achievements of women scientists.

Family commitments are also often cited as obstacles to careers in science. Managing a research career is time-consuming and can require disproportionate personal sacrifice in women. Flexible work arrangements and policies that promote equal parental leave, such as in Finland, would help to address the imbalance. However, paternity leave is almost non-existent in many Asian countries.

The reasons for the lack of women in science are complex but not enigmatic; the evidence points to the need for the dissolution of stereotypes and prejudice, policies to address the prospects for women in academic institutions, and flexible work arrangements.

If we fail, women will not be the only losers. Success demands diversity and women represent an increasing proportion of the scientific talent pool.

Ultimately, it is up to us to decide; was Merit Ptah 5,000 years ahead of her time, or more?


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sanofi-Pasteur/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Zaria Gorvett is a freelance science writer based in the UK. She graduated with a bachelors degree in biological science from the University of Exeter, UK and a masters degree in medical microbiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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