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Why Aren't More Women Choosing to Become Scientists?

Nearly 15 years have passed since the dawn of the 21st Century and still the field of science represents the dark ages in terms of gender equality. According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 2010, only 19.4 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in physics went to women and females represented a scant 17.6 percent of scientists employed as a physicist or astronomer. Why is it that women are so underrepresented in the science equation?

(Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr)

Strong evidence points to bias as one reason for the lack of female scientists. In 2012, researchers at Yale University published a groundbreaking study illustrating science faculty’s preference towards male students. Professors at six major research institutions were presented with materials on two imaginary undergraduate applicants, one female and the other male, whose applications were identical. Each was aspiring to grad school and applying for a lab manager position. Authors of the study say, “Our results revealed that both male and female faculty judged a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student, and also offered her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring.”

Lower pay for female scientists appears to be a side of effect of the bias and another force keeping women out of the field. The Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce published a report in 2011 titled Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, bringing attention to the low number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math and the pay differences linked to gender. The disparities are illustrated in the below graphs which were published in the report.

(Image Credit: Economics and Statistics Administration)

There is no clear reason why this bias against women in science exists, in spite of biological evidence showing that women are equally capable of performing in STEM fields, but some have hypothesized that it’s related to pervasive cultural stereotyping that begins early in life, discouraging females from pursuing science.

As one of the first two women to earn an undergraduate degree in Physics from Yale University in 1978, Eileen Pollack faced numerous challenges, the greatest being the lack of encouragement from her male professors, and subsequently chose not to pursue her dream of being a physicist. Pollack instead became a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan and has been investigating and writing about the challenges of women and science careers.

In a 2013 New York Times article, Pollack tells of her personal struggles and details the overall barriers to females pursuing science, which include: media portrayals of women scientists as nerds, unimaginative school science curriculum, misperceptions about a woman’s ability to balance having a family and a science career, and a lack of mentoring and encouragement at the high school and college level.

In the article, Pollack says “...we need to make sure that we stop losing girls at every step as they fall victim to their lack of self esteem, their misperceptions as to who does or doesn't go on in science and their inaccurate assessments of their talents.”

Aside from lobbying for changes, women pursuing a science career currently have one tool at their disposal: research. The Payscale Research Center is a searchable database that allows anyone to find out what they should be paid according to the median salary in their field according to location, experience, and it even allows users to search by gender, revealing any differences that may exist.

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Is there bias towards women in science? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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