There’s a very interesting Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences article, “Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science” that’s available to the public. Andrew Moseman summarizes it quite well:
…Ceci and Williams say, external and social factors–some matters of choice, some not–are the major ones hindering women in science today. Those factors include the much-discussed, such as the fact that a mother with young kids is still expected to stay on the fast tenure track, and the less-obvious, such as caring for aging parents or following a spouse who gets a job in a different city.
Overall, women scientists with the same resources — lab facilities and funding, for example — have careers equal to men. However women overall are more likely to step off the career track than male researchers, the study concludes, explaining a lot of the differences in their lives. [USA Today]
The scientists aren’t implying that efforts to stop overt discrimination haven’t been worth it. Quite the contrary–the study’s results would indicate that they’ve been effective. The question now is whether to shift more of the attention to fixing the career path problems Ceci and Williams point out, and which Nobel Prize-winning women have singled out as needing an adjustment.
I think there’s another factor, although it’s one that I can only attest to anecdotally: women scientists are often loaded with jobs that best could be described as “cleaning up the mess.” Things like god awful committee work and other ‘service’ commitments. Even as post-docs and graduate students, women, in my experience, disproportionately shoulder ‘teamwork’ burdens in labs that men do not.
In certain environments, such as research groups that involve large teams, this can actually be a good thing. But in academic science, this is a disastrous approach.
A cynic would argue that academic success requires narcissism and myopia, but, even if you’re not a cynic, there is something to that statement. You have to toot your own horn–that is, differentiate yourself from the group. You also have to be ‘selfish of your time.’ If an activity is not going to lead to the next step (e.g., a faculty position or tenure), then you really have to think about how you’re going to say no.
In my (perhaps atypical) experience, women are socialized to ‘fix things’ (and men are socialized to encourage them to do this). When you’re trying to succeed in academia–and being an academic is like being an independent contractor (even if you share letterhead and office supplies with a bunch of other people)–fixing other people’s problems doesn’t solve your problem (e.g., getting tenure).
Anyway, I’ll throw that out there for discussion.
Cited article: Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. 2011. Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. PNAS: 1014871108v1-201014871.