Women in Science: challenges and solutions

Women are consistently under-represented at the upper levels of the scientific enterprise, such as at the level of professors1, administrators1, or as members of scientific academies2 (Fig. 1). The lack of diversity in science is something that most people in the scientific community wish to address, but there seems to be a lack of consensus about the best way to do so.


Figure 1. Borrowed from Urry1

Many people point to motherhood as being one of the major leaks in the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ of science, but the repeated sexist ‘twitterstorms’3 and cases of sexual harassment in academia4 point to a hostile or inherently sexist work environment as the real culprit. However, there have been some major strides recently, including the election of the first female president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (one of the richest biomedical research institutions in the world)5.

One of the problems with the discussion of the inequality of women in science is that it often conflates many different issues: (1) the often grueling hours and/or expectations of an academic career6,7; (2) finding a work-life balance; (3) a lack of sufficient parental leave programs/family support programs7; (4) a long history of casual sexism in science and society7; (5) a lack of diverse role models in science7; and (6) women being unprepared for things like negotiating.

One solution is to generate and create support networks and host educational conferences aimed at educating and connecting women in science. About a week ago my university’s Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) group had a day-long conference, in which six distinguished women in science were invited to come and give a talk. The theme of this year’s conference was finding a work-life balance–which most agreed is best described as an equilibrium (Fig. 2). The reason it’s not a balance is because an equilibrium will maintain the same overall energy but the proportion of work and life can shift based on the various things we need to do. Each person’s equilibrium or balance will be different. Tied into this idea of equilibrium was using mindfulness and positive thinking to help make your work, which takes up a huge amount of your time, into feeling more like an enjoyable, or at least rewarding, part of your life.


Figure 2. A schematic of the work-life equilibrium. The line represents the same energy output, so an individual can shift along the line while maintaining energy output as required.


One of the most useful parts of the WISE conference was the workshop on negotiating. A major reason that women have lower pay than men is because they fail to negotiate. This workshop walked us through how to determine a reasonable negotiating range and helped us prepare for the negotiation conversation itself. It was an incredibly informative and useful workshop and I highly recommend everyone look into attending a similar workshop if possible.

An interesting  theme I noticed throughout the workshop was that some of the advice was to take on characteristically ‘male’ traits to be successful in the workplace, especially if dealing with the more ‘traditional’ (aka sexist) men. One of the panelists even suggested that women start manspreading and taking up physical space to exert dominance and maintain power in a conversation or relationship. Several of the women recommended setting strong boundaries with male colleagues, such as not going out for drinks after work, or not staying past 9pm. Discussions of appropriate behaviors in the workplace (e.g. not getting too ‘flirty’) also included being the ‘being one of the guys’ approach.

These suggestions are all good approaches to dealing with sexism and gender bias in the workplace, but it also made me wonder if that will just perpetuate the problems. A component of modern feminism includes embracing feminine traits and not just having women break the glass ceiling by adopting masculine traits and behaviors. So just like the problem of helping keep women in science, the solutions are nuanced and layered and not at all straightforward. How can we change the culture in science while simultaneously succeeding? 

What are your thoughts? Let me know what you think in the comments!



1Urry, 2015. Science and gender: Scientists must work harder on equality. Nature 528, 471–473. http://www.nature.com/news/science-and-gender-scientists-must-work-harder-on-equality-1.19064

2Gibney, 2016. Women under-represented in world’s science academies. Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/women-under-represented-in-world-s-science-academies-1.19465

3Morello, 2015. Science and sexism: In the eye of the Twitterstorm. Nature 527, 148–151. http://www.nature.com/news/science-and-sexism-in-the-eye-of-the-twitterstorm-1.18767

4Harmon, 2016. Chicago Professor Resigns Amid Sexual Misconduct Investigation. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/us/chicago-professor-resigns-amid-sexual-misconduct-investigation.html?_r=0

5Willyard, 2016. Howard Hughes’s next president: ‘Promote under-represented groups in science’. Nature. http://www.nature.com/news/howard-hughes-s-next-president-promote-under-represented-groups-in-science-1.19347

6Duffy, 2015. You do not Need to Work 80 Hours a Week to Succeed in Academia. http://sasconfidential.com/2015/11/25/80-hours/

7Shen, 2013. Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature 495, 22–24. http://www.nature.com/news/inequality-quantified-mind-the-gender-gap-1.12550