Women in natural science

Nature Geoscience recently published a letter to the editor entitled Closed Ranks in Oceanography. LuAnne Thompson, Renellys C. Perez and Amelia E. Shevenell show that the situation for female oceanography researchers at US universities has changed markedly between 1980-1995 and 1996-2009. Between 1980 and 1995 the chances for getting a tenure-track position in oceanography-related science at an US university was almost equal for men and women. However between 1996 and 2009 the situation changed and the number of women who got a tenure-track position decreased to one third.

More women thus continued in science and obtained permanent positions between the years 1980 and 1995, whereas the number of women had decreased between 1996 and 2009. Interestingly, the number of men who received tenure-track positions remained stable between 1980 and 2009. This is surprising, especially given the fact that efforts had been made to keep female researchers at universities. Thompson et al.’s explanations for the increasing gender gap are (i) more women may be choosing family and children over a career in science; (ii) departments may have changed their efforts to achieve gender balance in tenure-track positions (women had obtained 20% of the tenure-track positions in 1980-1995, but only 11% in 1996-2009). The authors conclude their study with the sentence: In conclusion, although female PhDs are reaching parity with male PhDs in physical oceanography, women are not transitioning to tenure-track faculty positions at the same rate as men — despite compelling reasons for departments to achieve gender equality (Thompson et al. Nature Geoscience 4, April 2011, p. 212).

I find the explanations by Thompson et al. (2011) somewhat strange and not at all fitting to my experience from Swedish Universities, where efforts to increase the number of female faculty members are being made and where the number of female researchers also has slowly increased during the past decade.  In a reply to Thomson et al.’s (2011), Helena Filipsson from Lund University writes that she does not agree with the authors that having a family would prevent women from taking up faculty positions at universities (Nature Geoscience 4, June 2011, p. 346). Rather, she argues, women remain invisible for example at major conferences, as keynote speakers and as large network project coordinators. This in turn would have a negative impact on women’s career paths. I am sure that Helena Filipsson has a point, because most conferences are still dominated by male speakers, most keynote lectures are given by male researchers, and many large research projects are led by men. However I also partly disagree with her, because compared to the efforts that have been and are made at Swedish Universities, and given the childcare system in Scandinavian countries, the number of female lecturers and professors should have increased more than it has, and we should see more than 18% women among the permanent staff. But we don’t.

Is it a lack of female role models or are the existing female role models actually preventing women to take the step into a science career? I recall a discussion I had some years ago with PhD students; my point was that a PhD education is an education and not a job, and that it demands more than just 7 or 8 hours of working day; that it is necessary to have a real interest in the subject, to be curious and engaged and that research becomes much more than just work. I will never forget the looks I received when I had said this. Finally one student answered and said: ”But who wants to become like you?” This answer has followed me throughout the years and I have still not really understood what he/she wanted to tell me. I should of course have asked immediately what he/she meant to tell me, but I was so completely stunned by the answer, that I never asked. Thus I am still thinking about the question: Is my life, which I regard as being so full of possibilities, so terrible? Is my life as a scientist so hard that no one would want to trade it for a life without travels, without meeting so many different people, without being able to continuously learn new things, without being able to find new interesting research topics, and without finding out new things. Where else would I have this huge freedom, and a monthly salary?

I have heard young female researchers say that the working environment at universities is too tough, that universities gather special types of persons, that demands on researchers are too high, that competition for research funding is too demanding, and that male colleagues take up too much space. Sure, all of this might be true, but it is also true for many other working places, and it does not explain why women are still a minority in science.

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2 Responses to Women in natural science

  1. unfortunately, it has a lot to do with the public image of a profession or a path. i will not blaze the trail by saying that we have entered the times when being dumb is celebrated in popular culture as an asset, especially among girls. being smart, thoughtful, different is just “not cool”. there’s pressure from everywhere and one has to be very strong from an early age to be able to withstand it. another crucial factor is family. it is good parents’ job to instill independent thinking in a child. it’s tough work on a bumpy road – for both the parents and the child. and it’s just not happening, i think.

    in any case, that’s just part of the problem. there are other processes at work here as well, i am sure.

    • Yes, the problem is really complex. And this is probably also why it takes so long. In addition, the media dictates quite much how girls should be, look like, dress, behave, and so on, and it can be difficult to resist the social and media pressure.

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