The case of the missing female scientists

Dr. Patricia Bath, ophthalmologist, inventor, and laser scientist

Have you ever wondered who is driving the medical research agenda? Who decides what is worth researching and how it should be researched?

One thing is for sure: it’s not women.  A new study published by researchers from Yale uncovered a persistent, institutional bias against female scientists. The study was discussed this morning in the New York Times.

[Science] professors were less likely to offer […] women mentoring or a job. And even if they were willing to offer a job, the salary was lower.

The bias was pervasive, the scientists said, and probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.

For women who work in the sciences, this isn’t news. Bloggers like Thus Spake Zuska and Female Science Professor provide regular chronicles of their travails in the male-dominated world of science and engineering.

But discrimination in the sciences affects us all, not just the women who work in the field. It matters because if  (white) men are at the helm of the scientific and medical research agenda, then they are setting the funding priorities, they are choosing the burning questions, they are steering the direction that new research takes.  It matters because we need female perspectives.

One of our most famous female scientists: Rachel Carson. She got her face on a stamp, but she didn’t have a PhD.

That’s not to say that there is a monolithic female perspective in science: there’s not. The Yale researchers found that female professors were just as likely as male professors to discriminate against their female students. But is it possible that the medical research agenda might look different if there were more female researchers? Yes. Maybe. Who knows? But shouldn’t we be able to find out?

When it comes to addressing the case of the missing female scientists, one of the most common approaches is to promote science to girls. Just last night, my son and I watched an episode of Sid the Science Kid, the incredibly annoying  innovative children’s show on PBS, and noticed that the program is making an effort to target girls.

Sid is a boy.

Initiatives like Greenlight for Girls and Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign are wonderful and important. Encouraging girls to study chemistry, portraying female scientists in children’s programming, having  Women in Science and Engineering organizations on campus, creating girl-centered science camps, and building support systems for female faculty: all of these are great ways to address this gender gap.  But at the end of the day, the underlying assumption of all of these initiatives is that if you give girls the self-confidence and the education, they will muster up the gumption to overcome the obstacles that stand in their way.

Of course we shouldn’t stop encouraging girls to pursue science in school. However, it’s just as important to address institutionalized sexism at the professional level, and to not prioritize individual over structural remedies.  So how could administrations and departments address this cultural bias?  The National Science Foundation recently  introduced a flexible work schedule policy, allowing researchers to delay or suspend their grants for up to one year in order to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations.  That’s a step in the right direction.

And hey, how about some good old-fashioned affirmative action? What do you think?


One comment

  1. Pingback: Think before you pink « Women's Wellness Watch

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