Why are women scientists still a minority?

Men largely dominate science, despite years of efforts to increase the number of women. Men still outnumber women by far in higher university positions, in science committees, in the number of approved research grants, in the number of published papers, as keynote speakers at conferences, as conveners at meetings, as experts in the media, and of course in respect to salary… this list can be made much longer, but I am sure you more or less get my point.

As long as I have been teaching at university, which means more than 20 years, I have always had at least 30-40% female students in my undergraduate classes. These numbers have even increased in recent years. About 50% of our present PhD students in Geological Sciences are women, and we also have more female postdoctoral students and research fellows. However further up on the career ladder the numbers decrease rapidly to 22%. A quick search on some of the university’s web pages suggests that the situation is similar or even worse in other natural science disciplines and departments.

Obviously, women get lost somewhere between soft money/non-permanent positions and more permanent positions as lecturers/professors. I have heard arguments such as: women want a safe job, they do not like the uncertainties of soft money/short-term positions, they feel insecure by not knowing what is around the next corner, women are wiser than men and try not to clinch to an uncertain future, women prefer life quality, and so on. But what about those women who really love their research and the freedom a university offers? Those who think that science offers life quality, despite all its drawbacks? Who don’t care about secure versus insecure positions? Who are extremely curious and who want to explore the depth and width of science? These women don’t want to give up. But where are they?

One of my ideas has been that it could be pure male stubbornness that makes the difference. But I don’t think so any longer. Women are stubborn too. I am more and more convinced that men have an advantage, because they get help from big brother. If women would have a little help and support from big sister, they would go on, they would be able to see possibilities, and they would make up 50% of higher university positions, of science committees, would get their research grants approved, would be successful in publishing, would be frequent keynote speakers and convenors at meetings …. The only problem is that there often is no big sister to help them on their way to the top. And the reality is that men support their male network, they chose from their pool of male buddies, and they promote their male students, with whom they can talk football, baseball, or what ever sport.

I don’t think that big sister would increase the percentage of women through talking about knitting, dancing or by organizing small cupcake meetings. But big sister could draw the attention to the fact that there are women who could be keynote speakers, who could be invited, she could help with research proposals, could introduce to her network and could give younger sisters her support and encouragement. Now, I am sure that there will be an outcry from the male community, telling me that they really also heavily support their female students. I bet they did and do so, but why then has the number of women not increased? Where are all the female professors who had been supported by big brother? There are some, definitely, but there would be more if men would widen their horizon and would think twice or three times …

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