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Resources, choices hinder women in science, researchers find

Feb. 8, 2011
Courtesy of PNAS
and World Science staff

Un­e­qual ac­cess to re­sources and gen­der-linked lifestyle choices may be to blame for the cur­rent un­der­rep­re­senta­t­ion of wom­en in sci­ence, re­search­ers say.

Ste­phen Ceci and Wendy Wil­liams of Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in Ith­a­ca, N.Y. re­viewed 20 years of pre­vi­ously gen­er­at­ed da­ta on gen­der dis­crimina­t­ion and the state of wom­en in sci­ence. They con­clud­ed that pro­grams to fight dis­crimina­t­ion in the work­place seem to have suc­ceeded, and that oth­er fac­tors probably ex­plain to­day’s paucity of wom­en in math-intensive fields.

Al­though dis­crimina­t­ion in the sci­ence field does oc­cur, the pair sug­gested, in­ci­dents are rare, rel­a­tively mi­nor and work as of­ten in fa­vor of wom­en as against them. Men and wom­en of com­pa­ra­ble re­sources pub­lish si­m­i­lar quantity and qual­ity of work, gain near-equal grant fund­ing, and earn si­m­i­lar pro­mo­tions and salaries, the re­search­ers al­so found.

But, they said, few­er wom­en than men pur­sue ca­reers in sci­ence be­cause wom­en are more likely to make per­son­al choic­es—both freely and un­der pres­sure—that ham­per their ad­vance­ment. These in­clude de­fer­ring a ca­reer to raise chil­dren, fol­low­ing a spouse, or car­ing for par­ents.

Re­port­ing their find­ings in this week’s early on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces, Ceci and Wil­liams warned that con­tin­ued fo­cus on dis­crimina­t­ion may be a costly and mis­placed. Ef­forts should in­stead be aimed to­ward educa­t­ion and pol­i­cy changes to bet­ter ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing fac­tors that dis­cour­age wom­en from be­com­ing sci­en­tists, they ar­gued.

“Ex­plana­t­ions for wom­en’s un­der­rep­re­senta­t­ion in math-intensive fields of sci­ence of­ten fo­cus on sex dis­crimina­t­ion,” for ex­am­ple in hir­ing and grant mak­ing, they wrote. While those may well have been the key fac­tor in the past, they added, “wom­en’s un­der­rep­re­senta­t­ion to­day re­sults from a com­plex set of in­ter­re­lat­ed fac­tors, some of which so­ci­e­ty could mean­ing­fully ad­dress if the fo­cus was placed squarely on them. One key to such suc­cess is mov­ing be­yond his­tor­i­cal is­sues and con­fronting cur­rent ones.”


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Unequal access to resources and gender-linked lifestyle choices may be to blame for the current underrepresentation of women in science, researchers say. Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. reviewed 20 years of previously generated data on gender discrimination and the state of women in science. They concluded that programs to fight discrimination in the workplace seem to have succeeded, and that other factors probably explain today’s paucity of women in math-intensive fields. Although discrimination in the science field does occur, the pair suggested, incidents are rare, relatively minor and work as often in favor of women as against them. Men and women of comparable resources publish similar quantity and quality of work, gain near-equal grant funding, and earn similar promotions and salaries, the researchers also found. But, they said, fewer women than men pursue careers in science because women are more likely to make personal choices—both freely and under pressure—that hamper their advancement. These include deferring a career to raise children, following a spouse, or caring for parents. Reporting their findings in this week’s early online issue of the research journal pnas, Ceci and Williams warned that continued focus on discrimination may be a costly and misplaced. Efforts should instead be aimed toward education and policy changes to better address the underlying factors that discourage women from becoming scientists, they argued. “Explanations for women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination,” for example in hiring and grant making, they wrote. While those may well have been the key factor in the past, they added, “women’s underrepresentation today results from a complex set of interrelated factors, some of which society could meaningfully address if the focus was placed squarely on them. One key to such success is moving beyond historical issues and confronting current ones.”