Women in Science – Cracks in the Glass Ceiling?

Women often just don’t get it – recognition or high-ranking positions, that is. Vertical segregation is the trendy sociological term, but while the proportion of female graduates in many scientific disciplines has shot up, the proportion of women reaching the top is still low. In most European countries women occupy fewer than one in ten top slots in science faculties.

Mookambeswaran ‘Viji’ Vijayalakshmi is head of a bioengineering laboratory at the Compeigne University of Technology in France. Recently, she became the first winner from France since 1985 of the ‘International Excellency Award’ in the field of affinity technology and biological recognition. Viji, however, is aggrieved that her University failed to communicate the news to the media positively. ‘They did not want to mention my name or my identity as head of this lab,’ she says, ‘nor even to mention the research field…the local press was not even present during the award ceremony.’ Is this a case of unwitting discrimination?

So, what is going on? Haven’t those tough old glass ceilings long since been smashed and piled up in scrapheaps along with that other structural blunder, asbestos? Seemingly not.

According to Nicole Dewandre head of the European Commission’s ‘Women and Science’ Sector there are several factors that underlie the slower progress of women’s careers in science. Surveys, she has pointed out, consistently show that women scientists more often follow their partners than the converse when a job change is in the offing and women are also more commonly forced to compromise their careers in order to balance the issue of child-bearing and child-rearing. While efforts are made by some establishments to assist with relocation through bridging finance and job offers for partners, the so-called received wisdom is that women follow their men. ‘When women go into the workforce, they almost never have the kind of support that men enjoy – their husbands have lives and careers,’ says Nancy Cox, who is researching the genetic basis of diabetes at UChicago. ‘Fewer men have that kind of support either, but there are still some that do, and that it’s difficult to break standards set in a different time.’

A disturbing study in 1997 funded by the Swedish Medical Research Council by microbiologist Christine WennerÃ¥s and immunologist Agnes Wold (Nature, 387, 341) uncovered that there is a strong gender bias in the way research funds are doled out. ‘The system is revealed as being riddled with prejudice…’ the authors claimed. It became apparent that women needed to be at least twice as productive to reap the rewards. The revelation has prompted greater interest in the issues. An inspired EC conference in April 1998 determined that beyond the need to be fair to women, the promotion of women in science is crucial to European society as a whole. The EC has now set itself a 40% target for female participation in its Fifth Framework research program and the pressure is on to ensure women are fairly represented and represent fairly the program’s expert committees. Currently, however, only 15% of applications are from women although the Sixth Framework rather optimistically expects to achieve 50% women participants.

Nancy Lane a cell biologist at the University of Cambridge believes women represent a ‘huge untapped economic potential’. She says as few as 3-4% of UK professors in any branch of science, engineering or technological disciplines are women while the number of women Fellows within the hallowed halls of the Royal Society and the Institute of Biology are, astoundingly, well below 10%. ‘Things are being done,’ she says, ‘but the culture takes a long time to change and many obstacles relating to the ‘old boy network’ still remain.’ Various initiatives are in place, such as the Women’s SET Unit at the Office of Science & Technology, a UK government department. Lane and colleagues are now establishing a Code of Practice for laboratories.

Statistics from the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry reveal that the percentage of female graduates is higher in chemistry than in physics and mathematics but is lower than in biology. Non-science subjects, such as French and English, still beat the sciences by a wide margin. The female to male ratio of undergraduates in the biological sciences is roughly 50:50. The percentage of females achieving higher degrees in chemistry is smaller than at first degree but it is increasing. US government statistics reflect something similar for the sciences in general, showing that women are approaching half of science and engineering bachelor’s degree recipients having been steadily increasing since the 1980s.

But degrees don’t always facilitate career progression. We are still seeing a strong gender bias. The first full female chemistry professor in the UK, Judith Howard of Durham University, only took her chair in 1991. In chemistry, there were a mere 0.8% females. Extrapolations see no parity between male and female professors existing before the year 2120!

So, where are the women in the upper echelons of science? There are a few famous names admittedly but women seem to remain footsoldiers or else leave the ranks altogether when faced with a lack of professorships available to them. There is a well-worn argument that science, with its goal-oriented attitudes and methodology is a more masculine than feminine pursuit. Women are said to be more interested in finding ways to reach a solution and in learning from the experience whereas men tend to gain more from getting the results and disseminating them in order to gain peer recognition. But, this argument relies on the archaic white-coated male stereotype. ‘I don’t think the problems women face in science and academia are so different from the problems they face in trying to move into the upper echelons anywhere else,’ says Cox.

Some commentators believe it will take more than conferences and proposals to eradicate inherent and ancient sex discrimination in society. According to Anthony Engwirda of Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, the underlying reason that there are so few women in positions of power is purely historical. ‘When a woman, her mother and her grandmother have no memory of personal discrimination then we could justify a belief about the integration of equal rights,’ he says. The duration and prevalence of an idea might hint at the difficulty in revoking it but, adds Engwirda, ‘changes to society are difficult and take time, the right of a woman to equality must become a pervasive global idea for several generations before the concept becomes self-perpetuating.’

Lane emphasises that women have been waiting for more than a decade to see a gradual filtering of women up through the system. It has not yet happened. Some argue that women are excluded from male lobbies, so have to work harder to get what they need, something certainly confirmed by the 1997 Swedish report. Viji recounts a half-serious comment she heard from a colleague – ”Decisions are so often made in the ‘washrooms’ among men that women can do nothing but be excluded from participating in the decision making process.” Cox adds that, ‘Women scientists are often underestimated because we are more social,’ she says, ‘which can make it harder to recognize that you are serious.’

‘Time will tell if the huge number of women in biological sciences as students now will rise to populate academic positions higher than assistant professor,’ affirms Karen Cone, a geneticist and molecular biologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia and joint owner of the WiS net discussion group. ‘We still have a long way to go, and the prospects for the “harder science” fields of chemistry, engineering, math and physics have a steeper climb because the number of women choosing to enter these fields at the college level is incredibly low.’

It is not so long ago that society created a stifling atmosphere for women aspiring to engage in scientific research. Collaborations with male colleagues were almost a necessity for women’s research to be heard. The astronomer Caroline Herschel relied on her brothers William and John to disseminate her research results. While archetypal role model Marie Curie received the Physics Nobel apparently on the insistence of her husband Pierre who would not accept it alone. Mme. Curie, of course, won the Chemistry prize in her own right after her husband’s death.

Society frowned on women in science – taunts of ‘unladylike behavior’, ‘immodesty’ and worse were bandied about, according to physicist Gina Hamilton – a staff astronomer at the University of Southern Maine – writing in Physics World recently – the goading still goes on, albeit the language is more ‘modern’. Hamilton adds that while various efforts have been launched, in the US and elsewhere, to increase the number of women studying university science these ‘well-meaning attempts are often frustrated by the reality of the numbers game’. In the more mathematically inclined physics and astronomy, there are simply not enough women with the right skills, who are interested in entering the field.

It is not all doom and gloom. At the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, a non-profit private research institute, the departmental chair of virology and a leading scientist in the department are both women. These are prestigious positions considering there are only four such labs in the country she says.

Bioinformatician Fiona Brinkman of UBC, Vancouver, believes she has benefited from having female role models, however, ‘My PhD supervisor was a woman, and was head of a section of the Canadian Laboratory Centre for Disease Control and a Pan-American Health Organization project, before taking a University Chair,’ she says. She also reveals that her mother was a technician in a scientific field. ‘I believe without really realizing it, I have chosen to be around suitable role models,’ she says.

Hazel Moncrieff meanwhile working in the labs of Bristol-Myers Squibb in England is also more positive about the issue. ‘I have not been put off applying for jobs since the jobs I would be looking for would require technical qualifications which are equal irrespective of gender.’ She adds that within her company most people are BSc/PhD qualified and she does not sense any obvious gender bias. Women, she says, are well represented in management although maybe not at the director level. ‘I don’t think this is due to a direct gender bias but is rather attributable to a wider issue of not affording flexibility to workers.’

Isolated examples are not enough, things may truly have moved on little since the Herschel’s day. Perhaps it is all about mobilization. Maybe action plans will create integration, but nothing substitutes for the involvement of women scientists. All the initiatives, committees, proposals and schemes in the world only make sense and deliver results if women are involved and make their voice heard.

This article originally appeared in BioMedNet’s HMSBeagle in my regular Adapt or Die column.