Where are the senior women in STEM?

So, here's the thing: I'm a female Biology professor, and when I was an undergraduate (1977-81 UofT), there were more or less 50:50 male to female students in my classes. This bottom-up input of women into Biology has been happening for decades. So, thirty years on, where are the other female Full Professors? In fact, where are the senior women in the government, industry and even in Biology-related NGOs?

The bottom line, is that past policies and programmes aimed at plugging the Leaky Pipeline of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), and achieving gender parity at senior levels have not worked particularly well.

Why? Because, the shifting of social and cultural norms is a pretty tough slog. The simplistic idea, that there simply needs to be more "bottom-up" inputs of females to the STEM subjects, so that over time, passive recruitment and retention in the system will, in one generation, lead to gender parity at senior levels, has been disproven by the demographic data. In their 2012 Science article, Survival Analysis of Faculty Retention in Science and Engineering by Gender, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler concluded that "if current trends continue, it may take 100 years before women are 50% of the faculty in STEM departments."

The diverse, global benefits of educating women everywhere, have been thoroughly researched and analyzed by the United Nations. In the Global South, simply getting young girls into school, remains a huge challenge. Lack of access to education for women is ongoing and education is a key factor in empowering women. Sadly, though, in the last 20 years, I have seen a sharp decline in the awareness of and interest in feminism, as it relates to both history and the current global status of women, amongst my science students. Additionally, since the late 1990s, many newly hired STEM colleagues, both male and female, seem to be quite disinterested in political and social issues, broadly, and apparently (I say this, since we have never had conversations on these topics, and I direct the university's sustainability research institute), quite uninformed about ongoing barriers to social justice. Now, one excuse might be that they're trapped in a publish or perish world, but I'm not sure that I'm buying that one, because I do have STEM colleagues who both publish a lot, have kids and ARE informed.

This trend is very disappointing, but, I have been delighted to see the emergence of new voices (for me), such as University of Hawaii, Paleo/Geochemist, Professor Hope Jahren, who writes about "interactions between women and men and Academia" including, about the reasons for the ongoing very Leaky Pipeline of women in STEM subjects.

As well, I have learned through social media, about Curt Rice, the former Vice Rector for Research and Development, over at Tromsø University, in Norway. Sadly, I never met him when I was there! Curt writes on university policy. His Open Access e-book, 6 Steps to Gender Equality and more essays about How Every University can get more Women to the top and why they should ought to be required reading for everyone in universities. I am also thrilled to read great critical commentary on gender issues in STEM (and on science in general) from male colleagues, such as Prof. J. Britt Holbrook. I'm where I am today, not just because of key female mentors, but because of two amazing (male) graduate supervisors.

Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009, in the UK, by Suw Charmin-Anderson, "as a response to online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences". The project aims to be an "international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths". I participated this year, contributing a blog about UBC Professor Emerita Judy Myers, that you will find at the Toronto pin on the Finding Ada map.

What exactly is preventing us from addressing the under-representation of women at senior levels in STEM subjects? Let's immediately set aside one theory, which, weirdly, keeps popping up like a zombie: that women just aren't as smart as men when it comes to maths and science. Just read this post by Hanna Rosin at the Slate XX Blog: The Clearest Graphs You Will Ever See Refuting the Idea That Women Are Bad at Math.

What other explanations do people (men and women) use to justify the ongoing lack of senior women in the STEM professoriate? Recently, I've been horrified to hear a couple of senior male colleagues seriously suggest that women just "don't want these kinds of jobs" and that my concern over this ongoing under-representation is just me "projecting my career aspirations onto other women".

In my opinion, this kind of talk is simply the defensiveness of well-meaning male colleagues, who truly believe that they have been doing the right thing to support women in STEM for 30 years. Consequently, they assume that our ongoing absence at senior levels after all the policy initiatives of the 1980s to 1990s must be because the girls just don't want the jobs, the power, the influence, the hours and the salaries.

My dear senior male STEM colleagues -- sorry, you're wrong, and here's why:

Ongoing research has revealed a lot more about the social and cultural reasons for attrition of women in STEM, and the low numbers of senior women in STEM. Eileen Pollack's recent (October 3, 2013) New York Times article, Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? is a good entry point to learning about what we now know about how both women and men drive these complex social dynamics. The self-perception research is fascinating. Women undervalue themselves, compared to how men, in terms of how they see themselves. This translates into crazy stuff, like women who publish in top-tier journals being less cited both by others and themselves, just because they are women. Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers and Barbara F. Walter amassed and analyzed a large database, when revealing this phenomenon in the field of Political Science. Their article, The Gender Citation Gap in International Relations, in the journal, International Organization, and the Washington Post-sponsored symposium blogs on Gender Bias, is another good entry point into the conversation about why, I am sure, that a whole lot of my colleagues are thinking that I am some kind of pushy, ummm, "person", for questioning ongoing gender bias in STEM, that's exemplified by, for example, all male STEM symposium panels.

Such an event, sponsored by the Council of Ontario Universities, which is currently headed by a woman, happened at York University in October 2013. I have been quite concerned by the explanations (and lack of them) from various individual and institutional organizers, that I received, when I asked questions about how this all-male speaker line-up came about: it wasn't random, people made decisions, and no-one wants to take responsibility for it.

So, that's it. To quote the title of a York University Faculty of Graduate Studies report from the early 1990s, about the Graduate Student experience, I'm "Not Satisfied Yet".

Dawn R. Bazely



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