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An MCB faculty perspective on women in science

Sep 2011 | Michele LeRoux 1,568 Comments

Understanding why the faculty gender imbalance persists and how it impacts the  experiences of women at MCB affiliated institutions.

It is no secret that there are three times more men than women on the MCB faculty list – a glance at the department website will bear this out. As a female student who would like to stay in academia, I found this fact troubling, and wanted to explore both reasons why this is so, and also how this impacts the work experience of female faculty. In order to address these two questions, I used a two-fold approach. First, and primarily to address the “why”, I looked at what the literature tells us, focusing on a recent meta-analysis in PNAS by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams. Second, to address how women are affected, I surveyed female faculty in the UW MCB program this summer in order to explore how women on the faculty of our own program experience being female professors. The survey was sent to all female faculty listed on the MCB website, and the response rate was about 20%. In this article, both the literature and the findings of this qualitative survey are discussed, placing the responses of our faculty in the framework of the literature.

It seems to be fairly widely accepted now that the anticipated “trickle up” from the graduate level – where most bioscience PhD programs now enroll an equal number of men and women – has not taken place as expected. In fact, this phenomenon is known as female “attrition” – a rather grim-sounding term, found not only at UW, but also at academic institutions around the world. Says one MCB faculty respondent of my survey, “Where do all these female doctorates end up after getting their degrees? Apparently not in academia. Maybe they are thinking they cannot have a family and still have a scientific career.” Female attrition raises a number of worrying questions. How is scientific progress affected if a large proportion of (often publicly-funded) trainees leave the field? How does the gender imbalance affect not just the women that do stick it out, but faculty as a whole?

The PNAS study by Ceci and Williams presents a detailed, empirical analysis of the factors responsible for fewer numbers of female science faculty at most universities, with a focus on math-heavy fields, but generally applicable to all science fields. While cases of overt sexism are documented, they are not systemic, and are not unique to the sciences. Indeed, one respondent in my survey, a more recent faculty member, writes that, “Most of the women my age don’t feel that we have experienced any overt sexism during our career, but I think the generation of female scientists ahead of us have.” Not all agree, though, and instances of subtle sexism abound – several of my respondents described recent incidences of overt gender bias. One respondent was addressed by a reviewer as “Ms”, not “Prof” or “Dr”. Another was advised to list a male collaborator as the main P.I. on a co-grant application. A third was introduced by her first name whereas her male colleagues were introduced by their titles. Empirical analyses find that these types of discrimination are likely not restricted to the sciences. As one faculty member says, there is still discrimination, “but SO MUCH better than 30 years ago.” Thus, while unpleasant sexism will likely be with us for some time, it cannot be at the root of the cause for the disparity in the gender ratio in the sciences.

The Ceci and Williams paper shows that given equal resources, males and females perform similarly and on the whole are treated similarly. In this context, resources include money, space, support, and time to do research, among other factors. Importantly however, women are less likely to have the necessary resources to consistently perform at this level. Even more striking is that this lack of resources is in large part because of the personal, ostensibly “free” choices of women: women are more likely to choose teaching-heavy or part-time careers. They suggest that these choices are often influenced by a number of factors, including child-rearing, caregiving of parents, or limiting location because of family or to follow a spouse. The timing of the academic career trajectory also plays a major role as women are required to be at their most productive when many are in the early phases of child rearing. The forces at work have been described as an “..invisible web [with] … multiple strands — some social, some biological, some institutional” (Nature 2011).

Another, more subtle form of discrimination at play is the institutional part of the invisible web: the heavier administrative and service burden that many women carry. Writes on MCB faculty respondent, “I see that my female colleagues shoulder a disproportionate burden of “extra” activities, particularly in the areas of outreach, teaching and mentoring. By contrast, I see many of my male colleagues focusing solely on activities that will move the work in their own labs or collaborators labs forward.” In fact, this sentiment was echoed by numerous responses to my MCB female faculty survey. A study in Academe Online describes this as “the ivory ceiling of service work”, which affects both male and female associate professors, but disproportionately affects women (Misra et. al. 2011).

Service within the university, such as teaching, mentoring, and serving on committees, is an enormous time drain, and is not usually rewarded by the academic establishment, but is essential for the success of the university. In a large study of STEM faculty at the University of Massachusetts in 2008-9, they find huge gender disparities in time spent doing service. At the associate professor level, while working similar hours as their female colleagues in the same positions, men spend about 7.5 hours a week more on their research, which translates into 200 hours more a year. Interestingly, they find that the women do this work because they feel obligated and guilty not to (in other words, not because of a natural “female affinity” for service), and are constantly frustrated by losing time that could be spent on research. These tasks, that women disproportionately execute, include service on departmental committees, where there is often a need for “female representation”. Several MCB faculty members mention the pros and cons of this heavier service load– it provides the opportunity to be involved, but this comes at the cost of time that could be devoted to research.

Multiple respondents in my survey mention another subtle form of discrimination that is widely seen in society at large: the range of behavior tolerated in males is much greater than in females. They write that strong female personalities tend to become marginalized within departments. Several faculty members report that they noticed their male counterparts pursuing assistance, resources, and even voicing their opinions in a more aggressive manner. Several women also write that “normal female behavior” is different from that of males, sometimes to their benefit, more often to their detriment. Women tend to be more collaborative, and less aggressive, even when promoting their own successes. For example, one respondent explained, “I know that in describing my work, my husband, also a scientist, will expound about the amazing results I have whereas I will say “I have an interesting result, let’s see if it pans out””.

Finally, there is the unavoidable fact that raising children and working towards tenure are two tasks that are difficult to execute simultaneously. One somewhat shocking finding from the Ceci and Williams study is that tenured female faculty on average have fewer children than their male counterparts; female faculty are also more likely to report having had fewer children than they wanted to because of their careers. Other studies have found that while women, on average, spend less hours at work, they spend far more overall hours “working” if housework and childcare is included (Schiebinger and Gilmartin 2010). While this is undoubtedly true for men as well as for women, the societal view of a woman’s role in family and “other arenas” means that as a whole, women are often expected to take on more caregiving, housework, and other home tasks.

These societal pressures were mentioned by many of the MCB faculty respondents. An interesting observation that one MCB faculty member made was that, “In countries with more social and family support to women, women blossomed earlier with regard to faculty positions compared to [the United States].”  Another of the MCB survey respondents writes that it is important to “…recognize that success in a scientific career will require compromise in terms of family, outside interests, career trajectory. If one expects to do it all simultaneously, you will likely be disappointed. However with some creativity and drive, one can be successful in multiple arenas.” Other respondents echoed this sentiment. One faculty member recommends outsourcing as much housework as possible, via a nanny or housecleaning service.  Several emphasize the importance of a supportive partner: “Find a life partner that truly believes in your intelligence and will go the distance to make sure both of you can succeed at whatever career paths you are on.”

It is not all doom and gloom though. As one MCB respondent points out, “Despite how difficult funding is, it is amazing to have a job where you can pursue whatever interests you, so long as you can convince funding agencies that it is exciting.” Another writes, “If more and more of us do science in a “female way” the rules will naturally become expanded to include our approach to science.” Many of the faculty in this survey urge students to find mentors and role models around them (both men and women), and work on building a support network. There are enough women in science for all-female networks to exist as well, and to find successful women with families to use as examples.

Ceci and Williams argue that instead of continuing to address historic biases that have already been corrected by successful efforts, we should instead be focusing on policy- and societal changes that could influence the choices made by women.  One respondent echoes this take-home message, saying that policy changes would play a major role in undoing the imbalance. Unfortunately, we are all scientists, trying to survive, and often do not take the time to think about, or act on, these issues. Perhaps our generation can begin to move academia beyond the current status quo, such that an academic career for women does not require significantly more personal sacrifice than for men. In the words of one of my respondents, Let’s “work to make it easier for the next person who doesn’t fit the cookie cutter mold of a biology professor.”

I would like to offer special thanks to the faculty that responded to our survey. Their honesty and thoughtfulness is greatly appreciated.


Ceci SJ and Williams WM. (2011) Understanding the current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS 108(8):3157-62.

Misra, J, Lundquist JH, Holmes E, and Agiomavritis S. (2011) The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work. Academe Online Jan-Feb 2011. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2011/JF/Feat/misr.htm

Schiebinger L and Gilmartin SK. (2010) Houseework is an academic issue: How to keep talented women scientists in the lab, where they belong.  Academe Online Jan-Feb 2010. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2010/JF/feat/schie.htm

Zakaib, GD (2011) Science gender gap probed. Nature 470, 153.

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