While women are catching up on PhDs, with the ratio now at roughly 20% (US data), women are more likely to leave higher education for good. Among faculty, the percentage of women is down to about 10%. The better the job, the more likely it’s occupied by a man.
The reasons for this “leaky pipeline” are manifold and no one presently knows for sure which factors are most relevant. Therefore, the question what, if anything, to do about it is hotly debated.
|Source: AIP statistics.|
I think both of these extreme positions are unreasonable.
The current gender balance almost certainly does not correctly reflect qualification because a) women have to push back harder on gender stereotypes and b) are more likely to have difficulties combining academia with family life.
Consider this: Last time I got my hair cut, I was informed that women can’t do physics because they can’t think logically. This insight was delivered to me matter-of-factly by a middle-aged, female hair-dresser after I answered her question what I’ve been up to lately. (Wrote a book – About what? – Physics).
I didn’t pursue the matter because I don’t like to argue with people who use sharp instruments near my eyes. But I was glad I didn’t have my daughters with me. They’re still at an age where by default they believe what adults say.
Gender stereotypes like this are everywhere and they almost certainly influence career choices. We all want to belong, and if women feel that science is for men, they’re less likely to pursue this avenue. They lose motivation more easily. They call it quits sooner. This means we are missing out on qualified women and instead fill up the pool with lesser qualified men.
Men tend to underestimate how pervasive these stereotypes are, and how tiresome it is to always be the weird one. It wears you down; doubly and triply so for women who are also members of minorities.
Example: I am constantly accused of being rude, aggressive, and snarky, and have been advised multiple times (by men) to not express myself with certainty. Because that’s offensive, you see. If men behave this way, they’re brilliant geniuses, and one cannot blame them for what is merely an expression of their enthusiasm. I’m left to constantly apologize for being who I am. Or figure this: Last time I won an award, the speaker who was supposed to summarize my achievements felt the need to point out that I do great work despite being short.
Yes, I have a lot of anecdotes, and they can be summarized as a pronounced lack of respect. I’m as much a professional physicist as the men around me, yet I’m not treated the same way. I’m LOOK-A-WOMAN!
However, I try not to draw conclusions from my own experiences because the very fact that I’m still working in physics is evidence I’m not suffering all that greatly. I’d go so far to say most of my colleagues are nice guys, and even the assholes don’t normally mean to be assholes. But I hear what my female colleagues have to say, and most of them are really frustrated about the nonsense they have to deal with. And, yeah, I too have been mistaken for the secretary.
The other major disadvantage that women face is that they are hit harder by the family-unfriendliness of academia. Turn it how you wish, women are still responsible for procreation, and female fertility rapidly declines past the age of 40.
Unfortunately, the years between 35 and 40 are also critical to establishing yourself as researcher. Most physicists presently don’t secure permanent positions until their early 40s. Up to then, job-hopping and frequent international moves are the norm. Taking time off to raise kids is difficult, and the inevitable decrease in academic output and flexibility is a competitive disadvantage. A priori this disadvantage exists both for men and women, but women are on the average the younger part of the couple, and, needless to say, pregnancy and nursing is an extra burden.
Arguments that women just perform worse than men are fundamentally flawed because they’re based on shaky interpretation of data that don’t quantify what they’re supposed to show. Data say, for example, that women in science publish less and their papers are cited less often (references here). Does this mean women are less capable of doing science? No, it means that they publish less and their papers are cited less often. To put it differently, it means that women’s papers are less popular with their – predominantly male – colleagues. How about not judging women by how much their work appeals to men?
The recent case of Alessandro Strumia is an example for such shaky interpretations of data. There’s no simple way to measure whether women are having a harder time with their research. There could be all sorts of reasons, from the lack of role models to difficulties getting funding to being more frequently asked to sit in committees because, well, we need at least one woman, you see? None of these difficulties will reflect in publication records in any obvious way.
Besides, there’s no agreed-upon measure for academic success. Indeed, it is well known that rewarding a high number of publications and citations creates perverse incentives, and therefore many scientists now compete to excel on meaningless performance indicators. So why are we even talking about this?
This is not to say that the differences between publications of men and women are not interesting or should not be studied. Just that one shouldn’t jump to conclusions from them.
But I am also not an advocate of a gender-balance of one-to-one. Biological factors, such as muscle strength, arguably play a role for some professions. I find it highly questionable that a profession like physics, which mostly deals with abstract ideas, is much influenced by genetic factors. But it’s a controversial subject and, as they say, more research is needed. Regardless of whether the reason is nature or nurture, however, women demonstrate preferences different from men, and it doesn’t make sense to push them into disciplines that they might not currently feel well in.
For this reason I cannot support policies that aim to increase the ratio of women based on the premise that 50:50 is the “correct” target. It’s not only that this risks we’ll hire women who are less motivated or qualified than some men who don’t get jobs, it also pisses off the men who feel like they are now the ones at a disadvantage. And this creates yet another bias, namely the belief that women now have an easier time rather than merely having less of a disadvantage. Again the recent Strumia-case is a good example.
Having said this, some people tell me it’s justified to risk hiring lesser qualified women, at least temporarily, to restore what they consider fairness in the long run. But at this point we are down to a value-decisions. What is more important to you: That science works most efficiently, or that women catch up with men as quickly as possible? I think this is the key question which no one wants to discuss.
Be that as it may, the easiest way to disqualify yourself from any discussion on the matter is to simply disregard the existing hurdles that women face. The problems are real, and they’re far from vanishing.
If you want to make a difference, check out the Practical Guide to Improving Gender Equality in Research Organisations by Science Europe, and raise awareness for the therein proposed changes among your colleagues.