Revenge of the Feminerd: Barriers to Women in Science

A black and white photograph of a woman writing a math equation on a chalkboard while a man looks on. They are both white and wearing professional attire.

It seems like recently women's underrepresentation in science and technology is finally being seen as a serious issue. It's a more and more frequent topic of conversation in the feminist blogosphere, and in last week's New York Times, four top women scientists discussed some of the barriers women face in pursuing a scientific career and how institutional commitment to increasing representation can have a big impact, and this Monday the White House held an International Dialogue on the subject.

In my first couple of posts here I mentioned issues stemming from the idea that a scientific brain is a male brain, while female brains, being "too emotional," tend towards less "rational" pursuits. However, all the evidence points to this being a social issue, not a biological one (for a great slide show on women in computer science, check out this post at Geek Feminism).

Although research by the Canadian Youth Science Monitor showed an equal number of youth of both genders interested in pursuing careers in science, recent UNESCO data shows a lack of women scientists worldwide, and US and Canadian organizations recognize this underrepresentation as a continuing challenge. In the male-dominated field of engineering, the peak of women's enrollment in Canada was in 2001, when women made up 20.5% of undergraduates. In engineering and natural sciences, women make up only 30% of the doctoral degrees awarded.

When some science facilities create a hostile climate for women and our schools and universities fail to actively recruit women into science we create a vicious cycle, with young women unable to see themselves reflected in the cultural ideal of what it means to be a "scientist" or an "engineer" or to pursue other technology-focused professions. When I was in high school I got the message loud and clear: It isn't sexy for girls to be smart. This message is compounded by representations in popular culture, with incidents like the Forever 21 magnet "I'm too Pretty to Do Math" controversy demonstrating that many still believe science is men's terrain.

Then there's the way women pioneers in their fields tend to be judged by their gender. Microsoft Developer Jennifer Marsman says that when you're a woman in technology, you sometimes feel like you're carrying the entire weight of your gender on your shoulders: "Since women are such a minority in the computing field, a female presenter does stand out. If she does a poor job, it might reflect poorly on all women, which is a lot of pressure."

Comic strip with two panels. In the first, two stick figures do a math equation and one says to the other, 'You suck at math.' In the second panel, one of the stick figures is a female and the caption reads, 'Girls suck at math.'

But even if we had more female scientist characters in pop culture, it wouldn't change the material factors that deter women from scientific careers. In North America, the lack of a universal childcare program might make women think twice before taking on a career in science or technology, where—as the women interviewed in the New York Times pointed out—long hours and travel are often demanded. And 21 years after the Montreal Massacre, when female engineering students were gunned down for being female engineering students, the threat of violence against women who take on "male" roles hasn't completely abated. While we haven't experienced another shooting of female science students, many report experiencing hostility from male classmates and professors, as well as from coworkers later in their professional lives.

It's an understatement to say that these problems are exacerbated for women of color. While women overall have made some gains in science and some have been recognized for outstanding achievements, by and large it is white women whose representation is increasing, and they are also the ones most recognized for their achievements.

In her book, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins interviews a woman of Latina descent who started a job at IBM in the 1990s. She recalls a male colleague who told her she had to spend more of the time during her presentations explaining how she was like the white men in the room, how she had gone to the same schools as them and earned the same degrees, because, her colleague said, "Right now they're spending the first 10 minutes wondering, who is this Latina woman?" If young white women find it hard to find role models in science, young women of color—especially First Nations women—have an even harder time, and this is a serious problem.

And educational and income inequality also disproportionately affects women of color, making it more difficult to pursue post-secondary education. We can't talk about encouraging women and girls in science and technology without talking about addressing these issues.

So how do we address them? On the representation front, it'd be great to see more women scientist characters in pop culture, particularly women of color. It's also going to be up to women who have succeeded in science to put themselves out there as role models, to take on mentorship roles, and to help institutions change their cultures to actively recruit more women.

Innovation Canada came out with a great video in honor of International Women's Day called "Women's Work," which features the stories of five Canadian women scientists from different racial backgrounds. It would be great to see more videos like this more widely disseminated.

The material changes needed are more difficult. We need government to work to increase women's access to child care, to support women pursuing post-secondary education in the sciences, and to make sure our school system is tackling the stereotype that science=male. We need to make particular efforts to address racial income inequality and racist attitudes that make it harder for people of color to continue their education. These are difficult needs to address, but not impossible, and entirely worth fighting for.


13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This is a tough one. I am

This is a tough one. I am trying to line up all the women (and especially women of color) scientists that I have seen in pop culture - so far I can only think about Astrid from Fringe, who is a wonderful role model, but not necessarily heavily exposed. Then again, there may be some women of color that we think of as "less science-oriented" than others - blacks and Latinas are certainly counted in that group as you pointed out, but most Asians are encouraged in the opposite direction.
From my point of view as a South Asian woman, it is curious to me that we don't see competent Asian women as doctors, scientists, etc. in mainstream pop culture. I have (and many of my friends have) always been encouraged to strive for a technological or scientific career path and, although it might be motivated by money-making ventures, it still means that we are going to school with the mindset that it's ok to be a nerd. That is definitely a stereotype, but if some TV writer could get it right by simply NOT making the science nerd girl an awkward social hermit, then we might see another group represented.
I leave you with this Marie Curie cartoon from XKCD that talks about the plight of women scientists.

Great post - lots of food for thought!

Jordan A.
My blog: The Cowation

Angela Montenegro and Cam

Angela Montenegro and Cam Saroyan on Bones! They're really sciencey and badass and multiracial! However, those two and Melinda Warner from SVU are the only women of color in science I know from pop culture. Bones is great for lady-scientists in general, and is wonderfully diverse for a hit-TV show, but our collective hard time remembering examples is just another proof that there are not enough lady scientists in pop culture.

Thank you so much for this.

Thank you so much for this. I'm a woman who's about to enter graduate school to get her PhD in Nuclear Physics. I was lucky enough while growing up to be told by many people, especially my parents, that I could do whatever I put mind to. I was taught that hard work was the key to success, and that my gender doesn't determine what jobs and I can and cannot do. I know, though, that there are many girls who aren't as lucky as I am. It's a shame, because these girls don't lack the potential, they just lack the encouragement. Imagine what they could do, if only given the chance!

one woman's experience with Physics.

I'm taking Physics too (an undergrad degree). I have to agree with the poster above. I was always told by my parents growing up that I was smart and I could do anything I wanted to.

In high school however I encountered a lot of discouragement to my studying Math and Physics. People would explain things to me very slowly as if I was stupid and they focused on my errors and did not acknowledge when I did things right. (I am not sure if this was intentional but this happens when people are biased and think girls can't do Math. You see what you expect it see and it takes longer for you to notice a woman who is good at Math if you are not openminded to seeing that. A woman will have to be really excellent at it in order for people to acknowledge that she's even "ok" at it.) It was very discouraging and I felt like people were making it hard for me to learn Math and Physics which made me sad (because I was really interested in Math and Physics). I remember completing a correspondence course in Math on my own and then when a teacher heard about it he said, "You have a killer attitude." It did take a lot of determination for me to do that BUT it was also interest! and just a little bit if ability too perhaps ? :)

I also had to face difficulty in high school with my parents making remarks like, "Math isn't that important, you should study English and Languages." (Which I suppose is somewhat forgive able since neither of them has a University degree). My mother used to advise me to study for French tests but if I had a Math test coming up she would say, "Well you can't really study for Math."

Probably because of these factors ? I failed Calculus the first time I took it. I remember sitting down on my exam and flipping through and finding a statistical question and spending the whole exam time figuring that out just to prove to the world that I could do Math and I wasn't incapable! I ended up eventually getting through Calculus myself by correspondence course (I wonder if I just got fed up of the discouraging teachers perhaps ?) and I tried it again in University, I was lucky because my Math prof in university was very encouraging! as were my Physics profs at the time. I was so scared of Math and Math equations by that time but I just got hit with so much Math (and encouragement and kindness) in one of my Physics courses that I didn't have time to get panicky about the equations somehow! By the time the course was over I was grateful to have survived the course and I had gotten through an honours Physics course, I would have felt silly being scared of Math.

These days when I tell other women I'm studying Physics they often say, "Oh my goodness..that's hard." and I say, "oh no it's GREAT! People are so nice and they have helped me so much." I must say I also feel incredibly happy to be getting to study Math and Physics, because I enjoy learning both. I feel so privileged.

Good luck! I have to say,

Good luck! I have to say, with your attitude and the things you've learned, I'm sure you'll go far!

Thank you :) All the best to

Thank you :) All the best to you too!

I always bristled at the idea

I always bristled at the idea that the Humanities were somehow seen as less "rational" or "disciplined" than math and sciences. I studied English and coming up with theories on that subject is, I can tell you, no less bound to a system of logic and reason than math and science. It's a different logic and reason, to be sure, but it's not as if we're all just scribbling down our feelings when we write a thesis (not that there's anything wrong with doing so). In this way, I feel that the gendering of academic studies not only creates the kinds of unpleasant scenarios for the students, but also suggests that one area of study is inherently more valuable due to its association with men, which is detrimental to education at large.

“But even if we had more

“But even if we had more female scientist characters in pop culture, it wouldn’t change the material factors that deter women from scientific careers. In North America, the lack of a universal childcare program might make women think twice before taking on a career in science or technology, where—as the women interviewed in the New York Times pointed out—long hours and travel are often demanded”

For an article blaming bigoted social constructs for limiting females’ success, it isn’t very logical or respectable to use other biased ideas of socially constructed roles in attempts to provide rationale for the initial condemned prejudices… Women can’t be scientists ‘cause they’re too busy being mommies, basically?... That kind of justification is no better than the “I’m too Pretty to Do Math” magnet’s implication.

I'm sorry you felt that was

I'm sorry you felt that was what I was saying, because it certainly wasn't my intention. What I was trying to say is that we live in a society whose "bigoted social constructs" place the onus for childrearing primarily on women. That means that we ask women to choose between motherhood or a career and either way they're seen as lacking. I don't think bringing in more childcare would reinforce an idea that women are supposed to be mothers, but would rather mean that women who have kids and who are in a heterosexual family where the father isn't taking on primary care duties don't have to write off a scientific career. In countries that have state-funded or state-subsidized childcare, women's equality is generally better (i.e. Sweden, Norway), and if you look at Sweden, there's also work being done to change the idea that women always have to take primary responsibility for the kids.

So I'm not saying women are too busy being mommies. I'm saying some women who choose to have kids aren't able to find someone else to take on the care of the kids, which is real work, while they're pursuing a scientific career. That's a material barrier that comes out of social constructs. Both the constructs and the material lack of childcare are worth addressing.

This is definitely an issue

This is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed. It would be great to see more female scientists, and even better, female scientists of color, but this is a battle that's going to take decades upon decades to accomplish. Right now, the main focus of the government isn't to help finance education for women of color, let alone any person of color. Their goal right now is to avoid another recession. So although I think that this is a great issue worth fighting for, it's unrealistic to think that all we need to do is kind of pressure the government to help finance education and healthcare for women. It's going to take a whole reform of the school system in order to achieve this goal. Colleges are still using the "quota" rule and accepting women of color into college but by then, it's up to the individual themselves if they can graduate and find a job. As sad as it sounds, most of them drop out because they can't handle the type of workload they are given, and that's before of the poor education they received from earlier schools. So in order to even accomplish any of this, we'd have to work on a whole lot more than just figuring out the finances.

Thanks, Samantha. I'm

Thanks, Samantha. I'm definitely not as familiar with the US education system, but you're right that these changes take time. That's what I was saying about the material issues. Dealing with poverty and internalized racism and sexism are huge tasks and that'll fundamentally be necessary to change this issue. Luckily dealing with these issues is also important to many other feminist issues, so it's not just about getting more women in science.

Well said.

Indeed, there is an under-representation of female scientists in popular culture. I can actually think of many off of the top of my head, but nowhere near the number of male scientists in television, movies, novels, etc. To be clear, I'm including computer scientists as well, not just mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, and all of the other hard sciences I'm neglecting to mention to save searching my brain too much.

As a woman pursuing an undergraduate degree in Mathematics, I haven't found there to be any real difference in the way I'm treated versus the male students in my program. Basically, it seems that everyone is treated as an individual. I realize that being truly unbiased isn't possible, as most everyone has preconceived notions and categories that we place people into psychologically to have a "neater" mind, so to speak, but as a general rule, I have received nothing but encouragement, praise (when warranted), and criticism (when necessary). I haven't even experienced the over-correction that many professors make when it comes to gender, where they encourage and praise a bit TOO much when the academic performance doesn't call for it (to appear unbiased? to meet quotas? I'm not sure why it happens-probably for many reasons). From the other comments, it appears that many women in science academia have experienced professors and other students almost willing them to fail, which I find very sad, albeit not unbelievable. I hope that other educational institutions move in the direction of the one I attend.

Also, it seems that the other posters that are in or working toward being in the science field and I share one thing in common-families that didn't reinforce the stereotypical gender roles. I grew up with an aunt and uncle that were astrophysicists with multiple doctorates. They always regarded each other as intellectual equals, and I never had any reason to believe that they weren't both perfectly capable of performing their work successfully. My mother, father, and stepfather all went into scientific fields. I met my fiancé in an Abstract Math course my first year of college, and we have worked together and encouraged each other for almost four years now.

This comment is one giant, rambling mess, but my point is this-the under-representation of females in scientist-type roles on television seems to be behind the actual representation of women in science, at least where I live (Omaha, Nebraska). I hope that popular culture catches up, but I hope even more that women continue to pursue whatever they choose in "real life." Honestly, it doesn't matter to me if females make up 1% of scientists, as long as there aren't women that truly WANT to go into a scientific field that are deterred for one reason or another.

I have noticed that when I tell people I meet what I'm studying, the response is nearly always the same-"Ugh, I'd never want to do that. Good thing you are, so I don't have to," or something along those lines. Basically, it seems like people aren't all that interested in hard sciences in the first place. I hope that is more the case than people being discouraged from learning something that they want to learn.

That was far too long.

I am studying Chemical

I am studying Chemical Engineering and similar to the other posters, when I tell people what I'm doing, their response (male and female) is either, "Wow! You're so smart!" or "Why on earth would anyone ever want to do that?" In my course of study too, the teachers in the first level math and physics classes are willing everyone to fail - not just women in particular. My teachers have gotten exponentially better as I have progressed into my actual major classes. I think a large part of the problem with the lack of interest in Math and Science is the initial university course load is overwhelming - ESPECIALLY if you come from a public school district that lacks funding. The courses in math and science tend to purposely weed out the weak in the first year or so. I don't know how many times I heard "Look to your left and look to your right, one of them won't be here next year." I've also seen a distinct difference in the ratio of men to women in my classes depending on the subject. In my chemical engineering classes, it's about 50:50, same with bio-engineering, materials engineering. In civil engineering, it's about 70:30 men, and in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering it's about 5:50. These numbers have been more or less echoed from engineers in other universities as well. I don't really have an explanation for the numbers, but I think it's interesting.

The other half of the education equation is what happens to women in the work force in these Math and Science jobs. It's a whole 'nother ball game. Your teachers have to treat you the same - your coworkers and bosses don't. I have been at an internship for a year, with two wonderful female bosses and a not-so-wonderful male boss that have really explained a lot to me. My female bosses have stressed the importance of speaking louder and more often than my male counterparts. They've all admitted how unfortunate it is, but necessary to get any respect. I've seen it with my own eyes as well in the time that I've been here. My male boss talks to me as if I'm an idiot and when I have questions he answers them as if he's talking to a five year old. I doubt he has had many female coworkers, and this could be part of it. Also, the male-male dynamics that have been built up in this industry for years are being threatened have women move in, which possibly adds to the reluctance of men to accept women as their intellectual equals. It's all about changing stereotypes and as more and more women get into these types of fields, the tides will turn and the men will be forced to get over their fears/prejudices/immaturity. For now, it's up to those of us who are in these fields to keep pushing forward and to prove the doubters wrong with our work and our knowledge. Nobody can argue with the right answer to a math question. To anyone that has experienced any of these feelings, you're not alone!