Women scientists don’t need fixing!

The Royal Society of Chemistry recently released its Diversity Landscape of the Chemical Sciences report. An opinion piece published here on The Female Scientist describing the findings makes a number of assertions that perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Moreover, the question in the title – ‘How do we encourage more women to get into STEM? – is never answered. I have previously written about why encouraging more girls to study science is not enough.

It is the argument here, not the author, that requires re-examination i.e. the assertion that women are complicit in workplace gender inequality, and the solution is to “fix women” via upskilling and modifying female behaviours. This concept is discussed in depth in Catherine Fox’s book Stop Fixing Women. This view is particularly damaging because it fails to consider the workplace and social structures in which women exercise their choices. Here I debunk three of the most pervasive myths about women in STEM.


MYTH 1: Women lack the skill and/or ambition to reach senior positions

According to UK data from the Royal Society of Chemistry, 44% of chemistry undergraduate students are female, but only 9% of professors are female. This reflects data collected in Australia, showing similarly poor attrition of women at senior levels. In the natural and physical sciences (data for ‘chemical sciences’ as a standalone discipline are not available), women make up 51% of Bachelor-level graduates, but hold just 16% of professorial positions. Across both academia and industry, just 16% of top-level science and technology researchers and professionals are women.

The leaky pipeline in academia sees women pushed out of the system at the middle-management level. – Data adapted from the Australian Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Research Data, 2014.

Conversely, in medical and health sciences, 72% of graduates are women, but fewer than one third reach the professoriate, suggesting that feeding more women into the pipeline will have minimal influence on numbers at senior levels. The overrepresentation of men in senior leadership positions across STEM disciplines is not due to a lack of talented and ambitious women. Rather, women are pushed out of a system designed by men, to benefit men.

The leaky pipeline in academia sees women pushed out of the system at the middle-management level. – Data adapted from the Australian Department of Education and Training, Higher Education Research Data, 2014.

For example, although women publish fewer papers than men, they are more highly cited, suggesting higher quality work of greater impact than that produced by men. Women also perform more academic service. Unfortunately, the ‘old boys’ club’ is alive and well, with male scientists 15% more likely to share their work with other men than with their female colleagues. In the publishing of scientific papers, the very currency of academic promotions, Nature reports that authorship, peer review and editorial positions are all biased to favour men, and men are given more time to speak at academic conferences. Moreover, women are perceived to lack the qualities needed to be successful scientists. A recent study of physiology undergraduate students found that men overestimated their own intelligence, and underestimated the ability and intelligence of their female colleagues. It should come as no surprise then that women are not supported to reach senior levels.


MYTH 2: Women lack confidence and negotiate poorly

Female behaviour is judged by male metrics, and women are often subject to policing of their behaviour and appearance in ways that men are not. For example, high-achieving women are penalised during the hiring process, with employers valuing intelligence in male candidates (but not females), and likeability in females.

In an experiment where identical resumes were submitted for a hypothetical laboratory manager position, the male applicant was scored as significantly more competent and hireable, and offered a higher starting salary than the identical female applicant. Faculty were also more likely to write “excellent” letters of recommendation for male applicants and to describe female applicants by their relationship-building characteristics (e.g. nurturing, caring) than action-oriented characteristics (e.g. confident, assertive, intellectual).

This is demonstrated by a search tool created by Assistant Professor Benjamin Schmidt from Northeastern University (USA), which looks at the words used in 14 million student reviews on the site RateMyProfessors.com. Women professors are consistently more likely to be described as feisty, bossy, aggressive, shrill, condescending, rude. In an infamous example, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel told a group of the country’s top female STEM professionals not to speak ‘stridently’. ‘Genius’ is a term students used to describe male professors three times more often than female professors, depending on the discipline (Figure 2), and ‘brilliance’ is something men apparently do better in university lecture theatres.

Women professors are more likely to be described as ‘bossy’ and less likely to be referred to as ‘genius’ during student evaluations. – Reproduced from http://benschmidt.org/profGender/

In a recent study using sensor technology, despite no perceptible differences in the work patterns, time allocation, online and face-to-face behaviour and performance reviews of men and women, men were promoted at higher rates than women. Simply put, the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behaviour but to how they were treated.

This double standard is introduced during childhood and reinforced throughout a woman’s adult life. When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Consequently, between elementary school and high school, girls’ self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys. It is no wonder that some women lack confidence in professional settings.


Myth 3: The salary gap does not exist

The average Australian full-time salary for men is 15% more than for women, and has remained static for the past two decades. In science the gap is slight better at 12.4%. Similarly, science institutions in the UK have a gender pay gap of 15% – that’s 50% greater than the national UK average. Results from the Royal Society of Chemistry survey showed that for recent graduates with up to 5 years’ experience, the gender pay gap hovers between ₤2000 and ₤2500. This is for graduates with exactly the same qualifications and experience. This discrepancy has nothing to do with women’s ability to negotiate, and everything to do with systemic bias and a gender-segregated workforce.

Women spend more time out of the workforce than men because caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women. Women are the primary caregivers for children and in Australia, it is estimated that women shoulder >71% of the responsibility for informal care of family and friends with disabilities, mental illness, chronic conditions or terminal illness.

Women tend to occupy lower paying positions, and work part-time more often than men. What starts as a few-thousand-dollars difference at the beginning of a woman’s career adds up over a lifetime. One of the consequences is that women retire with significantly less superannuation than men. According to the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, the average superannuation balance for women last year was $68,000 and $112,000 for men (AUD). Because superannuation builds up with wages and because women spend more time out of the paid workforce than men they accumulate much less. For women who retired in 2016, their average super balance was $157,000 versus $271,000 for men.

Data from the 2016 Australian census shows that older women are at increased risk of homelessness. The number of women aged over 50 forced to rely on improvised, non-permanent sleeping arrangements, such as couch surfing or sleeping in cars increased 60-80% between 2012-13 and 2015-16. Australian Bureau of Statistics spokesman Dr Jelfs attribute this to domestic violence and inadequate economic security, including superannuation. The pay gap, therefore, is not simply about equal pay for equal work: it’s about trying to minimise the structural inequalities in the system.


Let’s face the facts

FACT 1: Women operate in a system designed by men, to benefit men

FACT 2: Women’s behaviour is policed in ways that men’s is not

FACT 3:  Women are economically disadvantaged compared to men, and this disadvantage follows them through to retirement


Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy empowers many women on how to make the right choices to be successful. However, focusing on women’s choices places the onus of gender equality on women. So, instead of fixing women, who were never “broken” in the first place, let us stop perpetuating damaging stereotypes about women in STEM, and work together to create a supportive workplace culture for women to thrive.


Suggested reading:

Inferior, Angela Saini

Stop Fixing Women, Catherine Fox

Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

For more great book suggestions, join the Stemminist book club on Twitter (@StemministBC)