No disrespect to “Queen B” Beyoncé, but girls do not rule the world when it comes to science. It’s not even close considering only three in ten scientists worldwide are women.1 Despite making up about 50 percent of college students in science disciplines, women are underrepresented in technical roles in industry and research, and an even smaller number of women hold leadership and management roles such as lab managers.
Researchers have hypothesized why more men pursue careers in science and ultimately garner the top accolades in their fields. Some say that biological gender differences play a role. However, more research needs to be conducted to fully understand if that is true. Others are quick to highlight the culture of bias against women. But many simply fall back on the stereotype that boys are just better than girls at math and science.
Numerous studies have found that women in STEM (science, technology, math, and engineering) fields publish less, are paid less for their research, and do not progress as far as men in their careers. However, there is very little data at the national or international level showing the extent of these disparities. The following highlights some of the challenges women scientists face.
Women scientists are credited less often for their contribution to research
The assumption is made that women scientists don’t produce as much research as men or that the purpose or content of that research is not as valuable as that conducted by men. A new study from Northeastern University found that women who are part of research teams publishing scientific works in labs across the United States are 13 percent less likely than men to be credited as authors on articles and 58 percent less likely than men to be credited on patents.2
Even when women scientists have authorship and their work is published, they are often less cited by other researchers. A research team at Perelman School of Medicine reviewed published articles in leading medical journals from 2015 to 2018. Articles with women as the primary author were referenced in other academic articles a median of 36 times, compared to 54 citations of articles with male primary authors. Articles with female senior authors were cited a median of 37 times, while articles by male counterparts received a median of 51 citations.3 In the arena of science, being cited by other authors is a metric of academic recognition and influence and can lead to professional advancements.
Women scientists get overlooked for positions in the lab
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined biology departments at top research institutions in the US. The study found that male faculty members were less likely than female faculty members to hire female trainees in their labs. In the average lab run by a man, 47 percent of graduate students were female and 36 percent of postdocs were female. In labs run by women, 53 percent of graduate students were female and 47 percent of postdocs were female.4
Psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and her research team conducted a blind study to spotlight hiring biases in the lab. They sent the same application for a lab manager position to biology, chemistry, and physics professors, but half had a traditional female applicant name and the other half listed a traditional male applicant name. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the identical female applicant. The participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.5 The gender of the faculty participant did not impact the bias against women.
Women scientists are paid less than their male counterparts
A recent study6 examined the publication records of male and female scientists working as professors in research-intensive universities. Overall, faculty members with stronger publication records were paid more, but women with equitable scholarly achievements were paid approximately $6,000 less than male professors.
A United Kingdom survey found that women who became principal investigators in labs in the UK between 2012 and 2018 started with lower salaries, received fewer grants, and were provided a smaller staff than their male counterparts.7 The study also found that women had access to less lab space, received less mentorship, and reported lower levels of optimism about their future careers.
Women scientists have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19
A study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in July 2020 by a group of Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern colleagues on the unequal impact of COVID-19 on women scientists in Europe and the US. Women scientists reported a five percent larger decline in time spent on research than their male counterparts during the initial months of the pandemic. Female scientists with at least one child under five worked 17 percent less on research, and those with more than one child reported losing an additional three percent of time spent on research.8
Cassidy Sugimoto, a scientist at Indiana University who specializes in gender disparities in research, analyzed contributions from first authors (early-career researchers) in March and April 2020 and found the differences between men and women were more pronounced, with women publishing significantly less work than in the months before the pandemic started.9
The reasons for reduced productivity by women scientists during the onset of the pandemic is mostly anecdotal but can likely be attributed to the reduction in hours worked due to lab closures and women taking on the responsibility to care for elderly family and children during the shutdown, lessening the time devoted to their career.
Women scientists fall short of the highest awards
The Nobel Prize is one of the highest, most prestigious honors, with awards given annually since 1901 in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and, more recently, economics (1969). However, fewer than three percent of Nobel science winners are women, and they are mostly awarded jointly with male peers.10
Only three women have been sole prize-winners in science: Barbara McClintock in 1983 (physiology or medicine), Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964 (chemistry), and Marie Curie in 1911 (chemistry). Marie Curie is the only woman to win the Nobel for science achievement twice. She shared the prize in physics in 1903 with her husband.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has expressed an effort to increase the number of women represented at the awards and altered the language of the letter requesting Nobel nominations to consider diversity in gender, geography, and topic.11 But nominations are kept confidential, so it would not be possible to know if more women are being considered for the award.