What's Up With Science's Gender Gap?

Still not sure women face more obstacles than men on the way to a science career? Read Eileen Pollack's story.

Women In Science, 1987

National Cancer Institute

Now, as ever, it's a tough time to be a lady in science. As Nature wrote in its women in science issue earlier this year: "Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men."

The question, of course, is: Why? Why, even as the demand for STEM education rises, do only a fifth of the physics Ph.Ds awarded in the U.S. go to women, as a new New York Times magazine story asks?

Written by Eileen Pollack, who was one of the first women to graduate from Yale with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1978, this story is a deeply personal one. Though she graduated with honors after having written a thesis that, years later, her advisor would call "exceptional," no one--not even that same advisor--encouraged her to go on to a post-graduate career in science.

Certain this meant I wasn’t talented enough to succeed in physics, I left the rough draft of my senior thesis outside my adviser’s door and slunk away in shame. Pained by the dream I had failed to achieve, I locked my textbooks, lab reports and problem sets in my father’s army footlocker and turned my back on physics and math forever.

When she goes to visit that former thesis advisor, 30-some years after the fact, the maleness of mathematics was still basically written on the wall:

We met at his office, in a building that still has a large poster of famous mathematicians (all male) in the lobby, although someone has tacked a smaller poster of 'famous women in math' on the top floor beside the women’s bathroom.

But this isn't just the story of one woman. A Yale study from last year found that when hiring an applicant with the exact same qualifications, professors (both male and female) were more likely rate "John" as more competent, hirable and deserving of mentoring and a higher salary than "Jennifer." But, great for Jennifer, they thought she was more likable. Pollack spoke to the study's author, Jo Handelsman, a molecular and cell biology professor at Yale. Her takeaway, basically, was that this is everyone's problem.

Ratings For Competence, Hireability, And Mentoring

Corinne A. Moss-Racusina, John F. Dovidiob, Victoria L. Brescollc, Mark J. Grahama, and Jo Handelsmana

I asked Handelsman if she was surprised that senior female faculty members demonstrated as much bias as male professors, regardless of age, and she said no; she had seen too many similar results in other studies. Nor was she surprised that the bias against women was as strong in biology as in physics or chemistry, despite the presence of more female biologists in most departments. Biologists may see women in their labs, she says, but their biases have been formed by images and attitudes they have been absorbing since birth. In a way, Handelsman is grateful that the women she studied turned out to be as biased as the men. When she gives a talk and reveals the results, she said, 'you can watch the tension in the room drop. I can say: "We all do this. It’s not only you. It’s not just the bad boys who do this."' > 'If you add up all the little interactions a student goes through with a professor — asking questions after class, an adviser recommending which courses to take or suggesting what a student might do for the coming summer, whether he or she should apply for a research program, whether to go on to graduate school, all those mini-interactions that students use to gauge what we think of them so they’ll know whether to go on or not. . . . You might think they would know for themselves, but they don’t.' Handelsman shook her head. 'Mentoring, advising, discussing — all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses that men get that make them feel more a part of the party.'

Just go ahead and read the whole thing.