The Vagenda

Academia’s Dirty Secret: Keeping Women Out of Science


Let me introduce myself: my name is Shannon. I am a 22 year old White-Asian woman from England studying a PhD at university. In reality, this means I’m busting my butt off doing experiments from nine ‘til god-knows-when, nearly every day of the week, for three and a half years of my life. Not because it’s my job to, or that I’m doing it for the money, but because I abso-freaking-lutely love it.

I know many people can’t say this, but I love medical research so much that I’m pretty sure I’ll be clutching a bacterial culture in my hand the day that I die. And I love this work for a number of reasons: firstly, I can do it when and how I want; secondly, it’s fine if I fail so long as I work out why and learn from it; and thirdly, I get to show off my results and gain recognition for them regularly at talks and conferences round the world. In short, I could never see myself doing anything else. And yet. And yet.

Women, it is universally acknowledged, hardly ever progress as far in their scientific careers as men. This is a truth that I end up having to confront again and again in my line of work, and something that is regularly served up to me as so-called ‘proof’ that my gender are destined to fall at the first few hurdles.

When you look at undergraduate, postgraduate and post-doctorate levels, the gender spilt in science has actually become pretty even; even research staff in the places I’ve experienced have been about fifty-fifty. However, the academic staff – the ones that teach and lead their own research groups – tend to be men: this is important. The numbers of woman with professorships are, similarly, distinctly lacking. This is a problem across Britain, with the majority of universities scoring abysmally low on their hirings of women as academics and professors. Where and why, exactly, does it all go to shit?

At some point during a women’s scientific profession, instead of climbing to the top of the career ladder, the rung under her foot collapses and she can’t go any further; or, to put it another (more accurate) way, the ladder that supports her fails. There is an inherent fault in the system that biases towards men. So let me list the three most common reactions that I’ve come across to this problem (and yes, it is a problem):

‘Men take more senior roles because they are more intelligent/dedicated to the job than women.’

‘Women take career breaks to have children.’

‘If academia has proven to be the wrong place for women and their lifestyles, they should go elsewhere.’

To all of these, I say: let’s apply some logic.

Firstly, if men were inherently more intelligent than women (and yes, it is surprisingly still necessary to rebut this), we wouldn’t be at equal levels at PhD or postdoc level. The men would then easily win the opening positions over the women because clearly they are genetically more intelligent and hardworking – but they don’t.

Secondly, the baby situation. This seems to me a complete denial of basic maternity rights which women were supposed to have won a long time ago – and yet the prejudice is alive and well in academia. In this often hidden world, where people often aren’t held to account in the same way that they can be in commercial enterprises, I heard a supervisor mention to a postdoctorate researcher the other day that she “might not be able to work here any more” if she left to have children. The message is clear: want to use your uterus for human life? Say goodbye to your job prospects.

The real reason why women don’t progress as far as they should do in science is because of society, and the way in which its biases function in an academic environment. Don’t believe me? Let me give you a handy example in the form of my boyfriend and I (yes, it’s an obviously personal one, but I’m picking it out of the hundreds of similar situations I’ve witnessed and read about.)

Boyfriend and I went to the same university, we did basically the same subject and both got the top marks in our degree schemes in our year; I, however, won an additional prize for the unusually high quality of my work. We both applied for Masters degrees and PhDs half-way through our final year; he went to a total of four interviews in six months, and managed to secure a place before we graduated. By the time I graduated, I had only been invited to two interviews and it was only after a further eight months and another two interviews that I managed to get a place on my PhD course. The kick in the teeth for me was he used my covering letter and CV as a template because they were much better than his. Academia is rife with these tales.

The media is guilty of only showing a uniform male face as the face of science: on TV, for instance, David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have their own shows and corresponding fan bases. Pair this with the fact that scientific history has conveniently forgotten women – Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison and Watson and Crick, for instance, are household names while Rosalind Franklin (the actual discoverer of the structure of DNA), Clara Immerwahr, Gertrude B Elion and even Marie Curie are rarely spoken of in the primary school classroom – and you have a recipe for feminist disaster. You can’t be what you can’t see, and no amount of patronising European Commission adverts featuring girls who experiment with make-up and microscopes is going to make up for that.

If we want to encourage a new generation of women scientists – which I certainly do – then we need to discuss the female contribution to science publicly, as well as the very real historical efforts to silence them. We need to seriously empower the girls and women struggling their way through academia in a sexist environment. And we need to stop telling women like me, who live and breathe science, that top-level research ‘might not be the place for them’. After all, we’re making futuristic discoveries – so why should the attitudes towards us be so firmly fixated in the past?

- Shannon Dejesus

26 thoughts on “Academia’s Dirty Secret: Keeping Women Out of Science

  1. Brilliant piece, could not agree more!

    I work in the STEM sector also (specifically IT) and at a certain point women just drop off the radar, when this is questioned the above same excuses are always trotted out!

  2. I completely agree with you, I am currently studying for my PhD in Chemistry and have encountered lots of sexism thus far. One academic even told me to “get back in the kitchen”. Fortunately my supervisor doesn’t care about gender/race any of those issues so we always have a diverse group with an even male/female split.

    I am at the stage where I have to look to the future at what I’m going to do next and I already feel that academia is closed to me. I have a distinct feeling I’m going to work in industry as I can’t see a future in academia.

    The lack of women in academia is appalling and needs to be addressed.

  3. This is awesome! Thanks!
    Any chance y’all could post links to some of the statistics cited in this piece? I’ve been having this argument a lot with the fam and I’d love to have some actual empirical evidence to shove in their faces (ya know, being a scientist and all).

    • Hey Irene, I got most of the stats from HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency)
      It shows that out of senior academic staff 33% are women in the UK and at professorial level only 22% are women. At all other levels the average is 48% which is the data for the 2013/2014 years, the time I wrote this piece. Thanks for reading and sorry I didn’t put it into the article!

  4. Great piece. I’m an almost-qualified architect and can identify with the radical drop-off of women in senior positions.

    In the UK, architecture school is more or less 50/50, but women comprise just 34% of qualified architects, and 12% of partners. I’m sure this is typical of all too many industries.

  5. You say
    “Firstly, if men were inherently more intelligent than women (and yes, it is surprisingly still necessary to rebut this), we wouldn’t be at equal levels at PhD or postdoc level”
    This doesn’t really prove anything in and of itself. Women are 33% more likely to go to university than men, get well over half of Masters degrees and a bit over half of PhDs (the gap is now growing, in women’s favour).
    This doesn’t mean women are cleverer than men any more than when it was mainly men getting degrees that men were cleverer than women. All it tells us is that more women are applying and then going to university. Whilst more professors are currently men, this is obviously the case because women didn’t start going to university en masse until later on. Unless people think that for equality’s sake, all older male staff should resign or be sacked, then there isn’t much we can do but wait.
    With regards to STEM subjects, it’s just one single area where women don’t vastly outnumber men. Look in every other university department and they do, including medicine. With these sorts of articles, I always wonder do some people just refuse to accept there may be some areas in which men are more interested than women? And why?

    • “Whilst more professors are currently men, this is obviously the case because women didn’t start going to university en masse until later on.” Today’s professors were students in the 1980s and 1990s. I think women were going to university ‘en masse’ well before that.

      “With these sorts of articles, I always wonder do some people just refuse to accept there may be some areas in which men are more interested than women?”
      Did you actually read the article? Or any of the other ones about how women who are just as (or more) interested, just as (or more) talented, and just as (or more) hard-working than their male peers, suffer discrimination of various kinds? Are you aware of how socialisation works? Can you admit the fact that we won’t be able to make these sorts of comparisons or generalisations until women and men have been operating on a level playing field in a world without any gender socialisation or gender-based discrimination for many generations?

      Incidentally, men outnumber women in senior positions in most academic fields, which is one reason why the Athena Swan programme mentioned above has been introduced across the board.

    • Agnes, I read your comment and took some time to think about what you have said. I did not say nor mention that women are more intelligent then men, I don’t like sexism and I apologise if you read that in my work.

      I’m a bit confused about the facts you have stated as they have just reiterated my point that at postgraduate and post-doctorate there are equal numbers of men and women. I was questioning why there is such a huge difference from this level to permanent employed senior roles in academia. You also mention women are more likely to go to university, firstly, I specifically chose not to mention undergraduate degrees in the article because they are students who are not employed by the university, PhDs, post docs and most masters (those not attached to the end of an undergraduate or not fully taught) have to sign a formal contract of some sort. So with this is mind I wanted to concentrate on the academic career ladder, which starts at the majority of postgraduate degrees.

      I disagree with you point about women being late to the whole university scene but teabag made her point which I support. Women have been in academia for a long time now and that excuse to me doesn’t prove or validate why there is so few in senior roles. Women in science and young girls I feel also lack any female role models which would be helpful and inspirational to girls of all ages, even if they don’t like science. Basically all I’m saying is this. Yes women may be less interested in being in science like you said but without bias putting women off we will never know if it is a lack of interest or a lack of support unless we take out this bias and then look at the figures.

  6. In my classroom the groups are named after women scientists who should have got more recognition if it wasn’t for the patriarchy. Keep fighting the science fight.

  7. On the issue of having babies. We MUST fight back against the notion that having babies is a self-indulgent lifestyle choice made by women and therefore women are demonstrating a lack of commitment to their careers.

    First: it’s a choice made by a couple, not by a woman.

    Secondly: it is only a choice on an individual level. As a society, we must reproduce. Universities, all other public services and the private sector, all depend on having access to a workforce of people who were gestated by women and raised by parents or other adults to adulthood. There has been an amazingly successful re-branding of this social and economic necessity as a ‘choice’ made by women for which it is legitimate to penalise us professionally; as an expense that should be borne by individual parents; and the professional training of which should be borne by the child herself in the form of a massive debt. This is something that feminists should constantly expose, rather than – as this article does – even pointing to the law. It goes beyond equality laws to a great manipulation of public understanding by the usual grim alliance of patriarchy and capitalism.

    Thirdly: how can taking one or two periods of maternity leave (most academic women probably take about six-nine months) in a career that goes from the age of 22 (or whenever a PhD is commenced) to 70 (or whenever the retirement age will eventually end up) relevant to ANYTHING? That’s less than two years out of nearly fifty. And yet it is used to justify discrimination against all women ‘of childbearing age’ in most professions, in every area from access to employment through to career progression.

  8. Great article. This is something I really hope to see changing. It’s been my dream since I was 14 to be a medical researcher but I’m now in my late 20s and haven’t managed it and have decided to give up. I’m not sure it’s necessarily because I’m female that I’ve failed but it certainly is to do with the fact that I have had caring responsibilities that are unfortunately more often a “female problem”. I recently gained a 1st class biochem degree by distance learning while raising my 2 small children and working in a call centre to pay the bills. I’ve tried for years to get science-related jobs but never managed to as I don’t have experience. Doing unpaid work or moving would be impossible with my family, and I wouldn’t qualify for help with childcare if I did a masters so I can’t get a foot on the ladder. It’s an impossible and very sad situation that I feel locked out of what I know I would have been good at. Everyone says it was my choice to have children and I should have focused on my career instead but why should this be a choice women are forced to make? Good luck with your future career Shannon and I look forward to reading of your discoveries one day soon.

  9. Good article! However, the article and comments contain mostly conjecture. If anyone wants to know for sure they could always do the following:

    1. Go back over the last thirty years or so and get the stats for the gender ratio of undergrads for each year. Is the 50:50 split consistent over time? If yes, then the argument holds (there is a disproportionate lack of women in the upper levels of science when compared to those who enter it). If no, do step 2.

    2. Determine a suitable range to reflect the current age of professors and check the stats for the years they would have been an undergraduate. Is the current gender ratio of professors reflected in the relevant undergraduate ratio? If yes, the current ratio is explained. If no, do step 3.

    3. Do steps 1 and 2 for other academic disciplines and compare. Is the disproportionate pattern reflected? If no, then it could be safe to assume that there’s an issue within science specifically. If yes, the issue is across multiple disciplines (or academia as a whole) and requires an amended argument.

    Anyone want to give it a burl?

    • Hi Steef! Always good to see ‘let’s test this’. My university has done at least steps one and two (progressive Scandinavia ftw). The answer is no, the proportions of undergrads have not stayed constant over time, and no, the current gender divide at professor level does not reflect the gender balance of the relevant cohort of undergrads. I am not so sure that your proposed step three is necessary; if women are suffering from a ‘leaky pipe’ as they progress through science, that’s equally bad for science whether the problem also exists for the humanities or not.

  10. Great article. This is a problem that is continuously talked about it should be because right now it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere although the Athena Swan programme which most universities are now wearing as a badge of honour helps.

    I believe the focus on famous female scientist at all levels will be great as it shows women who defeated even worse odds than women are facing now. The more such women there are, the more women will be in the positions of power and as such help other women up there, bringing balance to the ratio of men and women at the very top.

    As much as I agree with your article your first point doesn’t hold. I am not saying men are more intelligent than women but if they were, ‘easy tests’ and ‘moderate tests’ may not tell them apart. You would require an ‘extremely difficult test’ such as making professorship to tell them apart (If we assume it is all about been intelligent and hardworking). So they could appear equal at PhD and Post-doc level however when the ‘tests’ start to get harder the differences will show.

    • If professors were chosen by ‘extremely difficult tests’, then perhaps your comment would make some sense, but since they aren’t, I can’t imagine what point you think you’re making. The causes of the male dominance of the professoriate are complex, but they have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, ability or hard work, and they certainly don’t reflect the superiority of one sex over the other, as you seem to want to believe. It is about conscious and unconscious bias in favour of men at every level, as has been comprehensively demonstrated in research. Go read Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender’ to find out about the studies.

  11. I agree whole heartedly with Agnes’ previous comment. Table’s are turning in academia in women’s favour, there are more female undergraduate students, and in my postgraduate lab the female:male ratio was nearly 3:1.

    I also believe that the reason why there are so few women in senior positions is because women didn’t start going to university en masse until later on. To get to these positions the prerequisites are usually an undergrad degree, a post grad degree, a post doc, a Wellcome fellowship and/or a lectureship, and to achieve this a lot of time is required. Many more women are getting close to this position. The increase in the percentage of female lecturers at universities is testament to this and they are only a grant application away from having their own PhD students and increasing their number of publications and obtaining a professorship.

    I also do not think the media have a great influence on attaching a gender to the sciences. Even though it is predominantly male at the moment. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson first developed their fan bases in the early 90s when there was a definite gender bias, but I doubt their fan bases will diminish just because of the narrowing of the gender divide. Attenborough came into the public eye at an even earlier date and being as he used to be the director of programmes for BBC Two it makes sense that he would want to broadcast his own documentaries, and Brian Cox was in the public before he even did his PhD. It is more likely because of their familiarity, rather than their gender, that these presenters are sought after. There is currently a surge of female science presenters including the top quality broadcastings of Helen Czerski, Gabrielle Walker, Gabriel Weston and Maggie Aderin Pocock. All of which will be joining the fantastic Alice Roberts and Liz Bonnin (who is now doing solo works without the rest of the Bang Goes the Theory team).

    Regarding the mention of scientists in primary schools: Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein will always be mentioned, their contributions to science have allowed us to launch successful space missions and find alternative sources of energy. These are concepts which primary school children are required comprehend. Radioactivity isn’t really taught until secondary school and so makes sense that Marie Curie isn’t mentioned, Gertrude Elion is highly unlikely to be mentioned at primary school level because her work requires a background knowledge of diseases such as Leukaemia and HIV, as well as organ transplants and immunosuppression, which is not what is taught at key stage 3. Some of these subjects don’t even get a mention until A-Level. Elion’s contribution to science is fantastic and, as with all Nobel Prize winners, will never become understated or overshadowed by anybody of any gender.

    Also no-one denies the discovery of DNA by Franklin, it was even acknowledged by Watson and Crick. Franklin was also recently acknowledged again by the top scientific journal, Nature, which printed a letter from Crick to Monod stating her work was the most important in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA (PMID: 12955113). As for scientists that should be mentioned in schools I think Clara Immerwahr is an extreme push, the solubility of transition metal salts is far too specific to be taught even at key stage 4. Unless you think she is an honourable mention because she was a women’s right activist?

    As for Athena Swan, I think it is swaying the sciences in favour of women rather than fighting inequality. I have had experience with Athena Swan representatives and my post grad university have employed women over men despite being less qualified and/or delivering a below par interview just so the University could achieve awards from Athena Swan because it makes the University look better. Athena Swan groups also tend to promote themselves by having women only gatherings. You cannot abolish sexism and close the gender divide by excluding men.

    I am however sorry that your personal experience, and obviously the experience of others here, has been a struggle and maybe even degrading. However, the last 25 years has seen massive increases of women in science and I am sure that equality will be established in time. However it will be a slow process, many senior scientists have senior views on gender and unfortunately until they retire from the scientific professions there will be sexism in science.

    You have written a very nice essay, and I am happy about the response it has received but I do not like some of the examples you have used or the lack of rationale that is behind the currently predominate male “faces of science”. You bring attention to a now obsolete campaign for women in science without looking at the campaign now (which is a fantastic example of motivating more women at entering the sciences).

    Also, you CAN be something that you cannot see, you can be ANYTHING you want to be.

    • Only people who’ve spent too much time reading MRA paranoia and too little time in the real world argue that the ‘tables are turning in favour of women’. Your prejudices are confirmed by the nonsense you have written about Athena Swan, which actually requires the involvement of men, together with individuals from all stages of academic career and types of background, or the award is not given. I do not believe that any university is hiring under-qualified staff as a consequence of being in the programme. I am sorry that anyone would be so resentful about the slight improvement in the dire and discriminatory situation for women in academia as to make these kind of bitter and fantastic allegations about this scheme.

  12. Great article! I absolutely agree. I’m not from the UK but mainland Europe – but my experiences are vastly the same.

    I’m a university academic from a different field (Humanities), and although the Humanities have always been considered to be more of a “woman’s field” I can tell you that there are decidedly not. My university is a top-level reknown research university, and our currenty faculty is 93 % male. Fields like STEM, medcine and law are almost entirely run by male faculty.

    Same can be said for my own field. Although our student, especially undergrad quote is almost 50/50, and we have high numbers of female Ph.D. candidates and post-docs the number of female professores traditionally is very low. It does start to increase slightly in the past years, and I’ve had the pleasure to work for female professores for most of my carreer. These facts are important, because mechanisms that have kept academia mostly male now start to work for women as well: the old’boys-network (and they are rampant in my field. There’s no open competition. You network or you’re dead.) are starting to be replaced by equally well-oiled female networks, giving woman more chances. Competition is fierce in my field, has always been, and due to low funding and the problematic financial situation of non-STEM academia in Europa will always be.

    Working as a female researches still has it’s pitfalls. I have seen and lecture to rooms full of old man smiling at “the girl”, tossing arguments aside with a mild wave of their hands. I have seen sexual harrasment in the working place being swept aside because male professores tend to cover for their colleagues. Academia is a field working on ancient principles – patronage and loyality. If your patron protects you you’re good to go. If not you’re dead meat. Men tend to protect men, a principle that sounds very clishe, but that I’ve seen in action countless times.

    Another things that doesn’t help the bring more woman into higher position is the endless insecurity of our jobs. There are hardly any tenure track positions anymore, and when your carrer forces you to relocate every two years, deal with the constant threat of loosing a job and facing social consequences things are rough. Many of my colleagues opt out of that and try to find more secure positions.

    So, yes, Academia is a man’s world, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Sadly.

  13. I have to disagree with the general opinion here. This article is very anecdotal and makes very hackneyed points that I think we need to look beyond if we want to say anything helpful. You say society biases function in an academic environment. What does that actually mean? Ok, so your boyfriend got a job quicker than you. Maybe he interviews better – you have no evidence that this happened because of his gender. You gloss over the maternity issue but isn’t this the real elephant in the room? Rather than complaining, blaming men, and the media (in which a lot of sexist content is generated FOR women BY women – Hello Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame), we should be discussing pro-active ways that we can change the structure of the workplace to enable both men and women to raise children while maintaining a career. And I don’t believe we can be in denial about the fact that you can’t realistically have both at the same time and expect optimum results for each.

  14. Hello,
    Science PhD here. Who gets ahead in science is determined entirely by who has privilege or the rare exceptional individual. At my institution = all white men (mostly married, wife looks after kids if they have them). When I go to international conferences with tens of thousands of experts = mostly white men, some women, I saw one black guy in tens of thousands of attendees. When I go to local conferences = mostly white men. Positions of power (eg professor status), pretty much white men. Maybe a few women. Almost all upper level positions are filled by those with white skin. The exception to these are in places where other races dominate, e.g. Japan and India, in which case, the top people in the field will be men from the privileged race.

    And as Fayet says… I’ve seen it all too, “casual sexism”, “casual racism”, “casual fat hate”, “casual slut shaming”, sexual violence, sexual harassment, exclusion, men talking over women, gendered insults, racism (from white men and women), men rating women, men acting like its their right to date rape colleagues, I’ve seen racist bullying, I’ve seen mother-hating bullying, I’ve seen women of colour complain about bullies who have long track records of bullying being totally ignored and excluded and blamed, I’ve seen women get their stuff stolen and hidden, I’ve seen groups of men use women’s discomfort as “jokes” watching her squirm as they tell sex(ist) jokes, I’ve seen men ignore women they should be training, I’ve seen… I’ve seen… a lot.

    If you identify as a woman STEM sucks, if you identify as a woman and any other axis of your identity is oppressed, well it exponentially sucks.

  15. Excellent article. Do you know the work of Curt Rice, a Norwegian academic who has some very interesting articles and research-based information on his blog.

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