Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nature on the Gender Gap

In a series of special reports in the July issue of Nature Jobs takes a look at the gender gap in the U.S. and Euroepe.

Magdalena Wutte reports on the gender gap in Europe in "Closing the Gender Gap." There is significant attrition of women who have earned their PhDs:

  • Women make up 40% of PhD students in natural sciences, but only 11.3% of the professor, research director and similar positions
  • Women make up 21.9% of engineering and technology PhD students, but only 5.8% of professor, research director and similar positions
  • Overall women have 24% of the positions on scientific boards. There are great country-to-country disparities, with the highs in Norway (48% women) and Finland (47% women) and the lows in Italy (13% women) and Poland (7% women).
  • In 17 of 26 European countries, women have lower success rates than men in securing funding
To help change the situation, the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS) was founded. The EPWS is "an umbrella organization for national women's networks and groups lobbying for women in science at EU level."

By networking across institutes and national borders, women hope to penetrate and overcome the 'old-boys' networks'; established institutional structures that often make it difficult for them to penetrate the higher ranks. Women need to form their own connections early in their careers, emphasizes Gaia Tavosanis, head of a junior research group at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich, Germany. She says that the mentoring women network FemmeNet, run by the Max Planck Minerva Foundation, has helped her to plan her career.

In the same issue Kendall Power looks at the science careers of women and underrepresented minorities in "Beyond the Glass Ceiling."

Women and minorities must both deal with implicit bias, a problem that is well-documented in the social-science literature, but one that has garnered little attention from the science sector until recently. Dean describes the problem of implicit bias in these terms: "People are most comfortable with people who think and look like themselves."

This type of bias cuts across all divides and has been shown to affect everything from basketball refereeing calls to hiring practices. In addition, a strong gender bias has been found in workplace scenarios, with both men and women consistently overrating men and underrating women in job qualifications (see Virginia Valian's chapter in Why Aren't More Women in Science? (eds S. J. Ceci and W. M. Williams); American Psychological Association Press, 2006).

The field of chemistry is looked at in more detail, as an example of a scientific field where women and minorities have made gains. In 2006 the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health co-sponsored a workshop of chemistry department chairs to try to address the gender imbalance. After learning more about implicit bias and other issues affecting women, the chairs were "more likely to admit to a lack of commitment or downright opposition to hiring female faculty members."

It sounds like getting senior members of the scientific establishment to face the issues affecting women and minorities may be the first step in closing the gender gap.

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