A woman won a Nobel Prize, but science is still sexist

One of the 2018 Nobel Prizes in physics went to Donna Strickland, a major accomplishment for any scientist. Yet much of the news coverage has focused on the fact that she’s only the third female physicist to receive the award, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer 60 years later.

Though biochemical engineer Frances Arnold also won this year, for chemistry, the rarity of female Nobel laureates raises questions about women’s exclusion from education and careers in science.

Female researchers have come a long way over the past century. But there’s overwhelming evidence that women remain underrepresented in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Studies have shown those who persist in these careers face explicit and implicit barriers to advancement. Bias is most intense in fields that are predominantly male, where women lack a critical mass of representation and are often viewed as tokens or outsiders.

When women achieve at the highest levels of sports, politics, medicine, and science, they serve as role models for all of us, especially for girls and other women. But are things getting better in terms of equal representation? What still holds women back in the classroom, in the lab, in leadership and as award winners?

Good news at the start of the pipeline

Traditional stereotypes hold that women “don’t like math” and “aren’t good at science.” Both men and women report these viewpoints, but researchers have empirically disputed them.

Studies show that girls and women avoid STEM education not because of cognitive inability, but because of early exposure and experience with STEM, educational policy, cultural context, stereotypes and a lack of exposure to role models.

For the past several decades, efforts to improve the representation of women in STEM fields have focused on countering these stereotypes with educational reforms and individual programs that can increase the number of girls entering and staying in what’s been called the STEM pipeline – the path from K-12 to college to postgraduate training.

These approaches are working. Women are increasingly likely to express an interest in STEM careers and pursue STEM majors in college.

Women now make up half or more of workers in psychology and social sciences and are increasingly represented in the scientific workforce, though computer and mathematical sciences are an exception.

According to the American Institute of Physics, women earn about 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 18 percent of Ph.D.s in physics, an increase from 1975 when women earned 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 5 percent of Ph.D.s in physics.

More women are graduating with STEM Ph.D.s and earning faculty positions. But they go on to encounter glass cliffs and ceilings as they advance through their academic careers.

What’s not working for women

Women face a number of structural and institutional barriers in academic STEM careers.

In addition to issues related to the gender pay gap, the structure of academic science often makes it difficult for women to get ahead in the workplace and to balance work and life commitments.

Bench science can require years of dedicated time in a laboratory. The strictures of the tenure-track process can make maintaining work-life balance, responding to family obligations, and having children or taking family leave difficult, if not impossible.

Additionally, working in male-dominated workplaces can leave women feeling isolated, perceived as tokens and susceptible to harassment. Women often are excluded from networking opportunities and social events and left to feel they’re outside the culture of the lab, the academic department and the field.

When women lack critical mass – of about 15 percent or more – they are less empowered to advocate for themselves and more likely to be perceived as a minority group and an exception. When in this minority position, women are more likely to be pressured to take on extra service as tokens on committees or mentors to female graduate students.

With fewer female colleagues, women are less likely to build relationships with female collaborators and support and advice networks. This isolation can be exacerbated when women are unable to participate in work events or attend conferences because of family or child care responsibilities and an inability to use research funds to reimburse child care.

Universities, professional associations, and federal funders have worked to address a variety of these structural barriers.

Efforts include creating family-friendly policies, increasing transparency in salary reporting, enforcing Title IX protections, providing mentoring and support programs for women scientists, protecting research time for women scientists, and targeting women for hiring, research support and advancement.

These programs have mixed results. For example, research indicates that family-friendly policies such as leave and onsite child care can exacerbate gender inequity, resulting in increased research productivity for men and increased teaching and service obligations for women.