International Women’s Day: What are the Biggest Problems Facing Gender Equality in STEM?

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on encouraging women to join STEM fields, but there is still work that needs to be done. We asked our female Associate Editors what the biggest problems facing the push towards gender equality within STEM fields today are. Here are their answers:

janaJana McPherson: My impression is that entering is not the issue. Certainly in my fields of conservation and ecology, there seem to be lots of women undergraduates and graduates and still a very decent proportion of female postdocs. I think it is beyond that level that women start to become increasingly rare. At least in part this likely reflects the fact that it is around post-doc time that biological clocks start ticking, and that it is neither easy nor necessarily desirable to combine starting and raising a family with a prolific production of publications, a heavy teaching load and the need to magic up a bustling research lab out of the blue. To reduce that hurdle, I think universities and academics have to become more accepting and accommodating of part-time effort. And I mean institutionally as well as individually. I have conducted research on a part-time basis for years now, and have seen many colleagues and collaborators in academia positively flummoxed by the concept that NOTHING (work-wise) gets done between when I leave the office on a Thursday at 2pm and when I return to work Monday morning. And yes, my life outside the office involves minutes and the odd hour here and there where I’m not directly interacting with my kids or looking after the household during which I could theoretically get the odd bit of work done. But I have tried that approach and found it rather stressful, sleep-depriving and frustrating for family members competing for my attention with whatever ‘quick’ piece of work I was trying to finish.  So now I leave work at the office and whatever does not get done within office hours just has to wait until I’m next at work, no matter how urgent.

Tamara Munkemuller2Tamara Münkemüller: I guess that the main problems are related to family planning. On the one hand, in many countries it takes long to get a permanent position and it feels like taking a risk to have children before this. On the other hand, one seemingly frequent constellation are couples of two scientists where the man is a bit older. In this situation it often happens that the older person gets a permanent position first and the younger follows and tries to adapt. Then there is the more subtle problem of different communication styles of men and women and numerous selection processes that tend to prefer a communication style that is thought to be more typical for men.

Satu Ramula: I think that one of the current challenges is to keep women in the system. Many female scientists leave academia at some point, which makes the sex ratio skewed as there are not enough qualified women to compete for academic positions at upper levels.

What barriers are there to women entering STEM fields (at undergrad, postgrad, PhD or post-doc levels)?

Natalie CooperNatalie Cooper: One large barrier is unconscious bias. We are all guilty of this. I ran an experiment a while back on Twitter asking people to name the top three scientists in their field. Almost everyone came up with three men. This didn’t mean that the field didn’t have any amazing women, people just seem to think of men first. This might seem unimportant, but the same thing applies when people are thinking of job candidates, new editorial board members, candidates for awards, collaborators, reviewers, committee members etc. All these positions help advance the careers of those being recommended so it ends up favouring straight white men. This unconscious bias against women can even be seen in assessing the quality of their code!

Another issue is imposter syndrome. Academia is unhelpful as we are always comparing ourselves to others and are forced to compete with our peers for grants and jobs. There are also a lot of academic superstars who seem to produce hundreds of papers every year. This, coupled with frequent rejection, creates the perfect atmosphere for people to feel inadequate. I think most people (men and women) suffer from this but I more often see it negatively affecting women. They seem to find it harder to fake confidence at crucial points, they are less likely to put themselves forward for things that might enhance their careers, and more likely to quit because they believe they aren’t good enough.

Both of these issues are hard to solve because they are deeply ingrained in our culture. But unconscious bias training and more discussion of imposter syndrome can help.

Carolyn KurleCarolyn Kurle: I think women who have completed their PhD degrees feel like working at a large, R1 university is too intimidating or daunting and that they could never manage to do all that is required to excel as an Assistant Professor in that environment. They have an idea that other things such as work/family balance and motherhood aren’t compatible with the demands of an R1 university. So, rather than try for those positions, they drop out of that level of academia and pursue other avenues that they perceive might be more compatible with having a family.

This is backed up in the discussion surrounding a recent study published in PNAS that postulates that women don’t apply for the tenure-track academic jobs, thereby contributing strongly to under-representation of women faculty. As someone who is an Assistant Professor at an R1 university with a young child, I encourage other women to apply for those jobs. Working at a demanding university is really hard work, but it’s also extremely flexible and one of the very best jobs for having children because you frequently set your own schedule and work doesn’t have to be completed under a traditional 9 to 5 rubric. That said, there may still be plenty of gender bias that prevents women from gaining ground in STEM fields, and the studies are mixed as to whether or not that is true.

Diana FisherDiana Fisher: I think a major issue is that young women are less likely than men to travel for their career. This includes moving cities or countries for a PhD or a series of short-term postdocs, which is expected in academic STEM careers. It is pretty hard to uproot your partner from their job and home. You might be facing a long-distance relationship or a break-up. Having young children or being at the stage of your life when you are establishing a long-term reationship tends to coincide with demands to travel for work. It may not be feasible or fair to move your children from place to place as well as your spouse. Even relatively brief travel such as conferences and overseas collaborations can be tough.

Louise Johnson: I think sexism is still a big part of it, inside and outside the workplace: from how your colleagues and students see you, to which branches of science are regarded as most prestigious or difficult, to whose career gets prioritised in relationships and who takes on caring responsibilities at home. Stereotypes about girls and maths are a particular problem early on, at the undergraduate level and below. Female students who answer a numerical question with “I don’t do maths!” have been badly let down by their schools.

Luísa CarvalheiroLuisa Carvalheiro: That depends on the field and region of the World. In some fields and regions the lack of role models is certainly an issue for the choices made at undergrad and early years of postgrad. But, in my opinion, the biggest barrier comes later. An issue that I think it is significant for a large number of women aspiring to follow an academic career is children. I know many women that manage to juggle the demands of academic life with motherhood, but it is a challenge that, I believe, makes many others drop out of science. Women’s biological clock conflicts considerably with a crucial stage of the academic life, where most researchers are struggling to get a good number of high-impact papers that are now required achieve a stable position in science. Of course many men also have babies during PhD, postdoc, tenure track years, but men typically don’t have decent paternity leave options. Due to societal pressures/mind-set, even in countries where those options do exist, the proportion of fathers that take advantage of parental leave is probably lower than that of women. So, in general, parenthood ends up interfering less with the time dedicated to the career for man than for women. If men’s parental care options improve (and if men make use of it) opportunities for men and women could become more equal, particularly in science and other jobs where merit evaluations still rarely take parental leave into consideration. If both genders take similar leaves, gender issues related with potential time that employees may take off could stop being an issue for employers.

Satu Ramula: I do not see any major barriers to women entering STEM fields. However, at the postdoc level, one should be prepared to spend some time abroad, which may require more career planning from women than from men.

SusanJohnston2Susan Johnston: The biggest barriers are implicit bias (in both men and women), negative self-perception and imposter syndrome, and the lack of visibility of women in postdoc, PI and professor roles.



Jana VamosiJana Vamosi: I didn’t feel there were many barriers at the undergrad level but I didn’t feel as though the spectrum of careers in STEM were communicated to me all that well. I seem to recall that my limited perspective was that a STEM career included only the professional stream (MD, engineer, or a research tech). Whether my ignorance was due to gender bias in how institutions recruit future scientists is something worth exploring. At the grad level, I did get the sense that people were always surprised that I was a PhD student and I had many people approach me assuming I was a receptionist. I don’t recall being all that bothered at the time but I’m sure that didn’t help my self-esteem any. At the post-doc level I had my first child so I really noticed firm barriers at that point. While Canada has the luxury of paid parental leaves at the post-doctoral level, the non-financial level of support is still minimal. At that point, many people stopped asking me about my research and restricted their questions to how my baby was doing and asking me for parenting advice. To some degree that reflects conversational politeness, but it was striking to me how I was no longer perceived as a scientist.

Is there anything in particular that you are surprised hasn’t been fixed or improved?

Louise Johnson: I’m surprised by how much career trajectories in science are still tailored to a “Boy Wonder” model. We should work to make the timing of a science career more flexible, to accommodate those who take career breaks, or have to step back for a few years for family or personal reasons, or simply take longer to gain confidence.

Natalie Cooper: A big bugbear of mine is conference lineups. I still see adverts for conferences where almost all the keynote speakers are male, and I still get the same lame excuses for why this has happened (see Female Conference Speaker Bingo). As someone who has organised a number of symposia, keynotes, and seminar series I understand the challenges of doing this, but it’s not impossible if you really want to achieve balance. One solution is to invite slightly more junior women if all the senior women are overburdened, or ask your community for ideas. It’s 2016. We really shouldn’t have to still be having this conversation.

Jana Vamosi: It is surprising to me that many institutions still do not have formal spousal hiring policies. Its an issue that is not going to go away and turning a blind eye to an unemployed spouse makes for decreased morale and eventual retention issues for institutions.

Is there anything that you think institutions, journals, funders etc. should be doing to improve gender equality?

Luísa Carvalheiro: In my opinion, evaluation metrics used when selecting candidates for research grants and academic positions should take into account publications per number of active years in academia. This is already starting to happen with some funding bodies and institutions, but it needs to be more widespread. Perhaps it would help if staff and postgrad student selection criteria had a higher weight in national and international rating of Universities.

Diana Fisher: Blind reviewing (removing the author’s name, institution and acknowledgments) works for some journals. I haven’t seen this used for grant reviewing. Some people are of the opinion that reviewers can work out who the lead author is, but in my experience of reviewing manuscripts this way, even if you think you know the lab, you usually can’t be sure which member of the research group is the lead author.

Common metrics that funders ask for in STEM applications such as number of papers and citations tend to favour male authors. Women are less likely to salami-slice a piece of research into as many papers as possible as quickly as possible, and to self-cite. More subtle ways of individually evaluating key pieces of research and removing self-citation from metrics might favour women more. Less emphasis on metrics and more on project quality in funding applications might also do this. Undergraduate student evaluations are also typically gender-biased, so less emphasis on these and more on learning outcomes might help.

Natalie Cooper: I’d like to see more commitment from institutions, journals and funders to combat inequality in science in general, not just in gender. Unconscious bias training should be mandatory for people in positions of power (editors, grant review panels, awards committees), and concerted efforts should be made to achieve balance wherever possible. Clear policies should also be in place to support these efforts.

Jana Vamosi: I think continuing to call attention to the issue is beginning to make inroads and should be encouraged. Funded symposia and special issues that highlight the work of women in STEM allow for greater visibility of role models for female students.

Susan Johnston: More should be done to make researchers at all levels aware of how their implicit bias may affect their perception of female and minority scientists. Senior figures should also pay attention to who they encourage to move up the career ladder into Postdoc and PI roles. Just because someone needs more convincing at an earlier stage, doesn’t mean that they will be less capable of doing the job once they get it.

Satu Ramula: Institutions and funding bodies are already doing a lot to improve gender equality by encouraging particularly women to apply for positions and funds, and by acknowledging career breaks due to maternity leaves.

Louise Johnson: Review of papers and applications should be double-blind wherever possible. In theory, I love the idea of more openness, but there is a lot of data on the measurable disadvantage of having a woman’s name and if we can’t be impartial, we have to build impartiality into the system as much as is practicable. Also, everyone needs to make sure the most important networking opportunities aren’t all in pubs after 5pm (and I say this as someone who loves a pint).


2 thoughts on “International Women’s Day: What are the Biggest Problems Facing Gender Equality in STEM?

  1. Pingback: International Women’s Day: Advice for Women Starting a Career in STEM |

  2. Pingback: DoctorAl Digest 18 – DoctorAl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s