Women in Science

Career prospects of women in science have certainly improved in Australia compared with about 50 years ago when promising female faculty members were required to retire when they married. Overt discrimination such as this is largely a thing of the past in Australian universities and in many other countries. In most areas of science, the enrolment of women roughly matches that of men in undergraduate and graduate programmes, and this representation tends to flow through to junior academic positions. In some areas, such as QAECO, for example, there is even a slight majority of women.

However, the evidence suggests that women tend to turn away from academic careers in science at a faster rate than men, such that women are commonly under-represented at more senior levels. Of course, women who leave academia do other productive things with their lives, often using science in other career paths, but the loss to academia is large.

The reasons for the lack of retention of women in science are varied. A recent New York Times article about Maria Klawe, who is an inspirational computer scientist and academic administrator, finishes by discussing the impostor syndrome, where a person feels undeserving of their career. This and other social factors might contribute to the disproportionate loss of women from science. However, the impostor syndrome is also worrying for those scientists who remain. A prevalent sense of being an impostor is hardly a state of affairs that would promote bold and innovative science!

Child-rearing is one clear factor in the loss of women from science. Women’s careers are often just taking off at about the time that families are being born. Balancing child-rearing and a career is not smooth sailing.

So, what can be done to retain a larger fraction of talented scientists in academia? A greater gender balance in child-rearing would help. Of course, there are some child-rearing roles that men cannot fill. But those differences are surmountable once children are beyond about six months of age. That, however, is not reflected in parental leave arrangements in Australian universities, where paid and non-paid maternity leave is an order of magnitude more generous than paternity leave. The generosity of the maternity leave arrangements in Australian universities is commendable, but it does tend to reinforce the social norm of mothers as the carers of children and keepers of households. More equitable arrangements for parental leave exist in other countries, such as Sweden, and they seem to be one possible way to improve matters.

Edit (26/7/12): The University of Melbourne has “parental leave” rather than “maternity leave”, so things are much more equitable than they once were, at least at this university (http://policy.unimelb.edu.au/UOM0108#section-2.3). I imagine that similar arrangements for parental leave are rare in other professions within Australia.

Discussing gender issues is also very important. While discussions might not eliminate things such as the impostor syndrome, shining some light on these matters should help people manage them better. To that end, QAEG has been fostering dialogue about gender issues within our lab group. I’d encourage other lab groups to do the same. It is critical that men are actively involved in those discussions, while being mindful that leadership in this area is a shared responsibility. And that the vast majority of the active involvement by the men in those discussions should entail attentive listening.

In the interests of promoting discussion, I’m breaking with tradition for my blog and enabling comments on this post, so feel free to add your two cents, list relevant resources or information, or suggest practical means for achieving improvement.

There are many things to read on this topic. To finish this post, I’ll list some links that I have found recently:

The American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women has a list of resources and information that is updated regularly. It goes beyond astronomy.

I recommend reading an article by Beth Baker in BioScience titled “Having a Life in Science”. The pdf of this article is also available here.

The NY Times piece about Maria Klawe, which I mentioned earlier, is well worth reading.

And check out the article by Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci in American Scientist; this quote from it is a basic summary: “It is when academic scientists choose to be mothers that their real problems start.” There are also different points of view, arguing that other factors can also be important – there is no one factor.

Edit: Note, I am happy to post anonymous comments if you email them directly to me (mamcca@unimelb.edu.au). I’ll keep your identity in 100% confidence.

Edit: I’ve just written a related piece about a discussion we ran in one of my subjects on “Women in Science”. Georgia Garrard and I have written a summary of that discussion on my teaching blog.

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About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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10 Responses to Women in Science

  1. Another anonymous comment that was emailed to me with a request to post it:

    This post highlights an issue that is very timely and personal for me. I have had three children in five years; the oldest is now just six and the youngest is nearly two. When I was pregnant for the first time I handed in my masters thesis in environmental economics. I did very well. However, I haven’t used it as I have been parenting. This is not because of maternity leave or gender imbalance in the care of our children. It is because I wanted to.

    This leads to the tricky question. Can I have a career now as an academic? I value being the main carer for my children AND I want to contribute to my community and society through my work.

    I am about to go looking later on this year and I see some issues. I need to work part-time because I don’t want to put the youngest in full time care. I need to have flexibility in my working hours as looking after kids can be unpredictable. I have been out of the workforce for seven years and am essentially at graduate level. I did my masters in the UK so do not have contacts in Australia. And the final, very tricky issue, is that I want to work in a stimulating job that makes use of my skills and engages my brain.

    This last point is at the heart of the issue. Female friends tell me that they have had to make the choice between going full-time in a job they love doing, or go part-time and be thrown admin and bits and pieces that others in their teams don’t want to do. Other friends have chosen not to make this choice and so don’t work.

    So, does a job for me exist? And how do I access it? Would you consider me or would it just seem too hard, and much easier to employ a bloke?

    I often think this discussion misses the point with the narrow focus on parenting payments. Give us the flexibility to go part-time or job-share, to sometimes work from home and give us meaningful work. We have skills. We are efficient. We want to be engaged. Just not within a system that doesn’t allow us to also parent or do meaningful work.

    • Thanks for this comment from “anon”. I get the feeling that universities in Australia allow more flexibility about part-time positions than in some (probably not all) other countries. One of the things I like about academic jobs is the flexibility of hours. At least in my area of research, which involves a lot of computer-based and mathematical modelling, I can take my research with me. Teaching and lab-based research are not quite so flexible with the hours.

      In my research group, we don’t load up the part-time people with the most boring tasks. If anything, I think we tend to ask the full-time academic staff to take on a proportionally larger part of the admin tasks. I’m not sure if that is common elsewhere.

      But I think more could be done so that part-time people are assessed more consistently in grant applications (i.e., relative to opportunity). For example, Australian Research Council grants ask for a statement of activity in the last five years, but that really should be the last five years full-time equivalent. That would seem to be a simpler and fairer way for assessors to judge performance.

  2. A comment provided to me by email from a person wishing to remain anonymous…

    Is our goal to keep mothers in the workforce?

    In social and economic terms, producing the next generation of workers is the single most important (demanding, exhausting) task in every human society, and it is absolutely unpaid.
    Parental leave addresses only the period when a worker leaves one job for another. Once parental leave ends, the parent continues with two jobs/one salary.

    Also, it’s not clear to me that lack of paternity leave is the barrier to engaging fathers in childcare and thus supporting mothers to stay in the workforce.

    Much more than this would have to change before the majority of men of all backgrounds internalise the necessary adult tasks required to produce the next generation of workers, even in the “West.”

    (A few men have always found ways to be heavily involved in child care, absent social policy; and most men find ways to have minimal involvement, even in cases where there is sufficient income. This occurs in all classes, in all social contexts.)

    Also, where in this debate is the room to consider whether having children at all is a necessary adult task for any woman, regardless of the social context?

    Few women can argue convincingly that our reproductive choices are truly “free” (that is, free from emotional or biological drives).

    Here’s a link to recent discussion of whether having children is morally defensible: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/09/120409crbo_books_kolbert

    • I agree that more than the actual duration of paternity leave, not a barrier in itself, the danger lies in the idea that the disparity in duration conveys. It reflects our beliefs and in turn shapes them for the future – so there comes the message that a man need not be concerned with changing nappies for more than a couple of months. True that men have always found ways to get involved or not – but again, does that imply that it’s largely up to them? That is already a discrimination, given that on the other hand a woman has little choice about being the one giving birth (assuming a will to do so). If the option of different leave balance was there, maybe more couples would at least think about it, and then see the following years in a different way.

      My thoughts on the issue were sparked by the debate in my home country (Italy) last year, when if I remember correctly the minimum retirement age for women was increased by a couple of years, but remained somewhat lower than for males. Most of the rage that followed was along the lines “it’s not fair, since women already work hard to raise children”. I can understand the impact on people who have already done so, but when these comments come from under-30s, who will presumably then educate their children accordingly, you can see a few more generations of unequal rights coming…

      In the end, the Swedish solution sounds fantastic as usual.

  3. womensweb says:

    In today’s world you do not have a comfortable option of running a family with ‘one’ salary. No possibility at all. There will be complications. The old role of women was homemaker only. It is not so now. She is a career woman too.

  4. Amy Hurford says:

    One aspect of the discussion that I find unsatisfying is the lack of an articulate expression about why gender balance is needed. One of the articles that you linked said something like gender balance promotes ‘diversity of ideas’ and possibly even that ‘diversity of ideas promotes innovation’. Those explanations are borderline circular and weren’t supported by any empirical evidence. For the woman thinking of leaving academia, or for the guy who doesn’t get hired because he was viewed as equal to the female candidate, I think we’d all be helped if we knew what gets lost due to lack of balance.

    • That is a worthwhile question – thanks Amy. I think absence of parity is more a symptom of inequity rather than just the problem. I don’t think science can afford to isolate 50% of its potential researchers – especially if science has already invested a lot into training them to the level of a post-doc or higher. Further, that inequity is not helpful for the scientists who remain in the system. Simply attaining parity in representation would not necessarily eradicate the problems of inequity – it might just treat one symptom.

      But I’m no expert on diversity – the above is perhaps just rambling thoughts. I’ll try to hunt up some evidence about the benefits of diversity and costs of inequity.

  5. There are two approaches to equity – theoretical and empirical. My approach is empirical – I will continue to do all I can for women until there is 50-50 in every way – then I will stop. Not a profound or deep approach, but it means I don’t have to think very much about precisely what is right and wrong.

    Hugh Possingham

    • Thanks for your comment Hugh. Your approach probably works at the level of the individual, because the actions you can take can be targeted to the individual. At an institutional level, figuring out what can be done to most efficiently address problems would seem to require a broader understanding about what drives inequity. It becomes a resource allocation problem, where relative efficiency of options is the key. That is where the Williams and Ceci article is important (and controversial) because it suggests maternity is the big driver of inequity. Although that might need some decision theory because importance and efficiency of instituting change are not the same thing.

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