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Addressing the Under-representation of Women in the Sciences

I used to take it as a compliment when people told me that I did not look like a physicist. It was awhile before I realized that they were commenting on my gender and not on my sense of style. During a period of time when the percentages of women in other demanding fields such as law and medicine have grown significantly women and ethnic minorities have remained under-represented in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 

Increasing diversity in the STEM workforce is not just a matter of fairness. The interest of U.S.- born students in pursuing science and engineering careers is declining1. If current trends continue, the U.S. could face a major shortage of technically competent workers. The evidence shows that the women leaving science and engineering are no less able than the men who stay2. Women are not leaving because they cannot do the work; they are leaving because they choose not to do it.  Beyond the purely numerical impact of this waste of talent is the loss of a broader set of perspectives which could help solve the increasingly complex problems faced by society. Studies show that teams work best when they are diverse and when team members do not always agree with each other.

An institutional, systemic approach recognizes that there is no one single explanation for the under-representation of women pursuing careers in STEM.  Broadly speaking, however, a wide range of issues can be grouped under the heading of “the culture”. These fields are seen as being highly competitive occupations that require a total commitment from their practitioners to the exclusion of all else. They are perceived as being unwelcoming and inflexible in their definitions of success. Women are not alone in finding STEM fields forbidding.  Debra Rolison3 argues that our current beliefs about how science should be done owe their origins to the monastic origins of learning and have yet to adapt to the fact that few people now have a “stay at home” spouse. She believes that women are acting as the “canaries in the mine” alerting us to the fact that the STEM fields will have to evolve ways to deal with the needs of a changing workforce.

I believe strongly that the changes in the culture needed to increase the number of women in STEM fields will benefit everyone.  This is not a case of “fixing” women so that they can survive but of teaching everyone how to better deal with individual differences.

Workforce concerns were among those that led the NSF to launch its ADVANCE initiative in 2001. The goal of this initiative is to develop broad programs, operating at the institutional level, to address the lack of women in STEM fields and especially the lack of women in leadership positions in these fields. The LEAP (Leadership Education for Advancement and Promotion) program here at the University of Colorado4 is funded through ADVANCE. All of the LEAP workshops are open to everyone, regardless of gender. The goal of LEAP is to facilitate change by both giving individuals useful skills for organizing their own lives and by improving the leadership skills of managers. The plan is that small changes in overall behaviors will have a “tipping point” effect on the culture.

Anyone supervising a group has the responsibility of ensuring that the environment will allow all of its members to succeed to the best of their abilities. Good leadership is open and transparent; there are good lines of communication between everyone. Policies are made clear and are followed. All members understand why a decision has been made and feel that their views have been listened to.

These good practices also help to minimize the effects of the subtle biases that exist and affect the women who are currently making their careers in STEM. It is important to remember that the existence of women who are successful in these fields is a necessary but not sufficient argument that all women can be successful. The invalidation of a general rule requires proof that it typically does not hold rather than that it fails occasionally. This is partly a historical problem. The low representation of women in leadership positions today is partly explained by the low numbers of women entering these fields twenty years ago. However, this does not completely explain the relative scarcity of women at the highest levels of the STEM professions.

Virginia Valian in her book “Why So Slow?”5 argues that both men and women hold the same set of implicit hypotheses, which she calls gender schema6, about the differences between the sexes which shape their conceptions. Basically – we tend to attribute to an individual the average characteristics of the group they belong to – even when there is a lot of spread around those averages. Consider height – this is an easily quantifiable characteristic. We know that on average men are taller than women. College students were given a sample of photographs of men and women and asked to guess their heights in feet and inches. These pictures always contained a reference item (e.g. a desk or chair) to help in the estimating. The sample was set up (unknown to the students) to match every man in the sample with a woman of the same height. What happened? Male and female students estimated the average height of the sample of women to be less than that of the sample of men.7 What would they do when asked to judge leadership ability?

So what do I recommend women do while we are waiting for good leadership practices to become widespread and awareness of all of the issues to grow? I want everyone to be pro-active about developing his or her own career skills. If you are having problems making time for stress management – work on your time management techniques. If you are not getting the resources you need – learn how to be a better negotiator. If you are feeling that your problems and issues are unique to you - network.

The lack of diversity affects everyone, and everyone should take on the responsibility of working for change. Let’s act locally and foster global changes!

Patricia Rankin, Patricia.Rankin@colorado.edu

  1. Here is a good source of statistics on a wide range of topics. The most recent report is discussed here. There is debate over whether or not there is an impending shortage of scientists and engineers (see, for example, the lead article in the July 9th, 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education) but there is no debate that the workforce will need to become more diverse.
  2. “Talking about Leaving – Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences” by Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt, Westview Press, Sept 2000.
  3. Can Title IX Do for Women In Science and Engineering What It Has Done for Women In Sports?
  4. More details on LEAP can be found at here. More information on the ADVANCE initiative can be found here.
  5. Virginia Valian.
  6. This is an interesting site for learning more about gender schemas.
  7. M. Biernat, M. Maris and T. Nelson,  “Stereotypes and Standards of Judgment.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66 (1991); 5-20. A more general and more recent article of interest about the effect of gender on evaluation is M. Biernat and K. Fuegan, “Shifting Standards in the Evaluation of Competence: Complexity and Gender-Based Judgment and Decision Making.” Journal of Social Issues 57 (Winter 2001):707-24.