Examining the science gender gap

AcademiaâÄôs âÄúleaky pipelineâÄù , an analogy used to describe the disproportionate lack of women in science faculty positions compared to their increased presence at the undergraduate and graduate levels, is troubling. Explaining whatâÄôs behind the phenomenon âÄî and figuring out how to fight it âÄî is a challenge, and Marlene Zuk, a University of California, Riverside biology professor, addressed those issues with a talk about unconscious bias Wednesday on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs St. Paul campus. We see fewer women in science, especially at high levels, she said, but thereâÄôs nothing legally holding them back âÄî and some women do succeed at those levels. So, why is it happening? Zuk pointed out the flaws of two commonly posed explanations âÄî that women either donâÄôt want to pursue demanding careers due to conflicting family obligations, or their inherent talents lie outside of the sciences. The work-life balance is definitely an issue, she said, but it doesnâÄôt explain the differences in representation of women across fields. âÄúPresumably, women physicists donâÄôt have a harder time finding childcare than women biologists,âÄù she said, yet there are more women faculty in biology than physics. As for the âÄúinherent differencesâÄù theory, Zuk said as a biologist, she knows there are intrinsic sex differences âÄî but nothing suggests those differences are critical to being a scientist. Instead, she presented a third explanation: the way people evaluate scientists plays a big role in corroding the âÄúpipelineâÄù female scientists travel from middle school math class âÄî where they perform at least as well as boys âÄî to the faculty tenure track where women are significantly underrepresented. One solution, she said, is for faculty search committees to use explicit search criteria rather than simply looking for the âÄúbest qualityâÄù candidate. Avoid the âÄúwe know it when we see it,âÄù approach, she added. Also, because biases provide decision making short cuts, people should avoid evaluating potential hires when theyâÄôre tired, distracted or stressed âÄî when the brain is tempted to take shortcuts. Even subtle differences in how women are treated add up, she said. For example, colleges need to look at who theyâÄôre inviting to give speeches. Mechanical engineering professor Caroline Hayes , who also co-chairs the UniversityâÄôs WomenâÄôs Faculty Cabinet , said making people aware of their biases is key. SheâÄôs working with chemistry professor Wayne Gladfelter , whoâÄôs also the Institute of Technology associate dean of academic affairs, to put together a program to teach faculty search committees and deans about recruiting women. It would be based on a University of Michigan program that gives hard evidence of how unconscious bias works. The Michigan program includes a troupe of actors that demonstrate situations where bias plays a role. Hayes said thatâÄôs important because it shows concretely how bias operates in real life. Also, stereotypes influence bias âÄî so itâÄôs important for people to see images of women as achievers. If there arenâÄôt many women in science and engineering, the stereotype of the male engineer can continue to influence people and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. âÄúI donâÄôt know why it is, but stereotypes seem to have this life of their own,âÄù she said. Ecology professor Ruth Shaw said it was sobering to see evidence for entrenched unconscious biases, and she noted everyone has bias âÄî itâÄôs not limited to men. She added that judgment was a big part of faculty hiring, and that it would be hard to boil it down to a mechanical process. Improving faculty representation of women is a real concern across the country and at the University, Gladfelter said. Traditionally, science and engineering faculty are male, which can give women an unintentional message that those fields arenâÄôt for them. And that puts a collegeâÄôs ability to attract top talent âÄî which can lie in any demographic âÄî in jeopardy, he said.