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Embodiments of Science: “Gender-Based Issues for Women in the Natural Sciences”

May 7, 2015

by Grace Delmolino, Italian/ICLS Ph.D. ’17 and 2014-15 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

During IRWGS’s final “Embodiments of Science” program of the spring semester, students and faculty gathered to hear a panel discussion on issues facing women in the natural sciences.

The four speakers began by discussing the “leaky pipeline” metaphor that is often used to talk about gender disparity in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Although men and women enter STEM fields at the undergraduate level at roughly similar rates, gender disparity steadily increases as the “pipeline” wends its way through graduate education, postdoctoral programs, junior faculty positions, and so on, until the pipeline—i.e. the number of women in these positions—has become just a dribble at the level of tenured faculty members. This holds true for both the academic and corporate worlds. Not only is the pipeline leaking—the plumbing itself is broken!

Maya Tolstoy, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, reported that Columbia’s Commission on the Status of Women has just completed a decade-long study revealing that the percentage of women in STEM—especially at the junior faculty level—surged in the early half of the decade, but has now plummeted back down to nearly what it was before. If the trend of small and steady increase at about 4% per decade continues, Tolstoy cautioned, it will take approximately seventy-six years to reach parity. It is a sobering thought.

Anne Taylor, Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia Medical College, pointed out that although the practice of medicine has had parity for about 20 years, advancement into academic medicine shows a similar pattern. Why does such disparity persist in academic STEM fields? And why, asked Tolstoy, did we see such progress a decade ago, and such backsliding shortly thereafter?

The panelists reflected on the kinds of social conditioning, biases, and stereotypes that contribute to the gender gap in STEM. Rajini Rao, Professor of Physiology at The Johns Hopkins University, emphasized the importance of mentoring and support for women in these fields. Take the example of awards: women tend to win fewer awards for their work not because their work is inferior, but because they are much less likely than men to apply for recognition in the first place. Outreach and encouragement, and above all strong networks of mentors and colleagues to whom women can turn for advice, are crucial for creating the conditions where gender parity can be achieved. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, enables new kinds of networking that can be especially beneficial to women working in these male-dominated fields.

But achieving gender parity isn’t just about women: men are implicated too. According to Liz Miller, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, “male advocates are essential” if we’re going to enact real change in the gender dynamics of academia. All four panelists agreed that it’s absolutely necessary for everyone to call out unacceptable behavior—whether deliberate or not—whenever it’s possible to do so. Miller reminded us that, in scientific experiments, simply reading a statement that bias exists can positively influence outcomes. In fields where gender parity can seem so distant—recall Tolstoy’s calculation of 76 years to achieve parity, at the current rate—there’s a lot of work still to do, even on the level of raising awareness of the gender gap.

There’s a long road ahead for women in the natural sciences. Taylor acknowledged how difficult it can be to forge forward in highly competitive, demanding fields when “the impostor syndrome that everyone feels, for women and minorities, is confirmed, emphasized, and amplified by external systems.” Yet, as Tolstoy pointed out, equally demanding and competitive fields like law reached gender parity a long time ago. The panel concluded with a consensus that, to fix the problem in STEM fields, intervention is required at nearly every level. As the report from the Commission on the Status of Women shows, it is possible to enact dramatic change in a relatively short period of time. But once progress is made, any slackening off of efforts can all too easily result in a negation of that progress. We need to plug the leaks in the pipeline, yes.  But above all, we need to fix the plumbing.