Women in science--and ramblings thereof

So, Chad posted a link to this post last week.

As a woman in science myself, I have to say I don't 100% buy this argument:

Most people go to work primarily in order to earn a paycheck. Workers prefer a higher salary to a lower salary. Jobs in science pay far less than jobs in the professions and business held by women of similar ability. A lot of men are irrational, romantic, stubborn, and unwilling to admit that they've made a big mistake. With Occam's Razor, we should not need to bring in the FBI to solve the mystery of why there are more men than women who have chosen to stick with the choice that they made at age 18 to be a professor of science or mathematics.

First, obviously this assumes that an academic career is a "big mistake." Second, he assumes that the attrition of women is due merely to discovering how much the pay sucks, while because "a lot of men are irrational, romantic, stubborn, and unwilling to admit they've made a big mistake," they stick with academia. (Also to impress their friends, because apparently they have poor social skills). Third, what are the stats on how many of us actually chose such a path at age 18?

Stereotypes aside, I think he's off the mark. For one, many women who choose to even begin pursuing an academic career in the first place are also "irrational, stubborn, romantic, and unwilling to admit mistakes." Hell, I admit I'm all of those things a lot of the time (though, hey, I can admit mistakes) and my husband will confirm. I think anyone who aspires to a career with 10-15 years of training beyond college needs to possess many of those qualities merely to get through the training--man or woman. But I don't think it's all about the Benjamins.

What *do* I think influences it? Like many things, I don't think it's as simplistic as Greenspun makes it. And as a woman with female friends in various stages in academia, I figured I'd run my mouth off with my own impressions. Complete with some data, even.

First, Greenspun focuses on college undergraduates. Maybe things have changed since I was an undergrad oh so long ago,* but when I chose my major, I didn't know how much I'd be making in a career. I wasn't even sure exactly what I wanted to do as a career yet. I don't think I'm alone in this.

So, anyhoo, Greenspun's hypothesis, if true, suggest that women shouldn't major in science in the first place, because of lack of good-paying jobs compared to other potential majors. But the stats show otherwise. In 2001, there were roughly 200,000 female science and engineering graduates awarded bachelor's degrees, equal to the number of men:

How many that year continued on to higher education, receiving a Master's in science & engineering? ~40,000, compared to over 50,000 men:

Onto doctorates, and women earn them at barely above half the rate of men, roughly 9,000 women and 16,000 men:

Let's look at another graph:

Female S&E doctorate holders are almost twice as likely as males to have spouses employed full time: 82 percent of the married females and 42 percent of the married males had spouses employed full time in 2001.

Only 13 percent of the married females but 38 percent of the married males had spouses who were not employed.

Seems common-sensical that this division could lead to this phenomenon:

Full professors as a percentage of full-time ranked S&E doctorate holders in 4-year colleges and universities, by sex and years since doctorate: 2001

So what we have here is this. Decreasing numbers of women who continue at each stage of an academic career. Of those who do make it to the PhD, many of us have spouses who have their own career, whereas the majority of our male counterparts do not. End result: fewer women who end up full professors.

So, I don't think it's all about the money. Hell, I knew very well that my friends were out there with their B.A.s making $50-60K per year to start as consultants for credit card companies, or more as investment bankers. Meanwhile, I made barely $20K as a technician, then $13k as a grad student. And even now as a professor, I'm still not caught up, salary wise. I bring my work home with me and spend too much time at the computer and in the lab. It's a bit of a crazy life, I admit, but it's manageable. But that's not the message that many women hear--and not the examples they often see--when contemplating a career in academic science. I know people thought I was insane when I was pregnant in my first year of grad school (and hey, I probably was), and I continue to hear that exclamation when I mention to colleagues that I have kids. It can be done, but it certainly takes a lot of sacrifice. In my case, I've had supportive mentors, colleagues, and family, which has been the key for me. Many don't have all of that, and the career may be the logical place to cut back.

I also wonder, since Greenspun is dealing mostly with sterotypes, how much of it also has to do with women putting themselves second. It is tough to have a two people with demanding careers and try to raise a family--how many women give theirs up to be one of those part-time or unemployed spouses in the penultimate graph?

I also wonder if there's data on this for other demanding careers that require the employee to be away from home much of the time--something like big business. I'd assume they have a similar attrition rate--many women at the bottom, fewer in the middle, even fewer at the highest levels. Note that it's not just the title "professor" or the acquisition of the PhD that's the issue--it's specifically in science. You don't see the same dramatic trends in non-S&E disciplines. How much is because many of those subject areas lend themselves better to work at home, while being in science means not only time to write, but lots of time also in the lab?

Anyhoo, I know my thoughts aren't all that novel and smarter people than I have probably hashed this out, but I think it's way too simplistic to say, "it's the $$$$, stupid."

*shaddup, not that long ago

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Weren't they telling us last week that women don't care as much about money and fast cars and expensive macho status symbols, and that's why they get paid less?

L'uomo è mobile.

I'm in a Physics department; Physics has the *worst* ratio of women to men of any science. I know full well that in Physics, at least (and to a lesser extent, my own field, Astronomy), it's still a hostile world for a women. Much of this is subtle, but hair-raisingly often it's overt. Almost every woman I've talked to about the topic has some stories that we really shouldn't be hearing much in the 21st century -- groping, propositions, assertions that women are too stupid to be physicists, etc. And the subtle stuff goes on too.

It strikes me that all these attempts to find "reasonable" excuses for why there aren't enough women in science may be rationalizations to convince ourselves that we don't have a social problem that still needs to be addressed....

I wrote a long musing on this topic over at my blog:


That's a good point, and I've also heard stories. It's not all from men, either--a (female) friend of mine who's working on her degree in bioinformatics had a *woman* tell her something along the lines of, "most women aren't smart enough for this field." So I agree there's a social problem as well--which also may play back into not having as much support for women with regard to family and other issues, since some people may believe either 1) women don't need it; or 2) if women were good enough to do science, they should be able to do it without any additional "help" that things like on-site daycare or flexible hours may provide.

Way back in 2000, when I was at one of those awkward junctures in my career, I gave serious thought to jumping to industry. It was tempting: my skill set was in demand, I had friends in industry who told me that they actually worked 9-5, with paid vacations, and hefty bonuses and retirement plans. Worse yet, the jobs I was qualified for all started at about $100K/year.

When I got a job offer for an academic position where I'd get to work with smart students, though, the fact that I'd be getting paid significantly less than half that and would have to move to the boondocks of the midwest just didn't matter. I'm not in this business for the money, never have been.

I had the choice, and the one I took was no mistake.

Heh. Yeah. 2000. I've always been an extreme computer nerd, and wrote a bunch of the software that did data analysis of the supernovae that led to the discovery of the accelerating Universe. I gave serious thought during 1999-2001 to jump to industry; it was in the middle of the dot-com boom, and looked very appealing. I also, twice, had the option of moving into scientific computing at a supercomputer center. In the end, I didn't want to leave physics & astronomy; I really did want to teach, good students, and so forth.

BTW, PZ, you must know my father and monther in law, Bert and Janet Ahern, both of whom teach at UMM.


Tara -- Sturgeon's law. He said that 95% of science fiction is crap... but then, that 95% of everything is crap. If most women aren't talented enough to be in any given science field, it's just because most *people* aren't talented enough to be in any given science field. (I understand that that is not what the friend-of-the-friend you quoted meant, but that's a way one can put a positive spin on it if one is so disposed.)

Re: the family leave issue: I have a colleague here, a man, who is working with the administration to shape a family leave policy, and plans to take off a semester next year after his wife has a kid. There are obvious physiological reasons why women need maternity leave more than men, at least up through and a little past birth... but after that, ideally, a "family" friendly University will think about childcare and so forth for all of their employees.

There's also just the whole stress of being pre-tenure faculty. Another (very old) colleague of mine made the observation that we ask our young faculty to do the extreme amount of work to prove themselves and earn tenure just as they are likely at the stage in their life when they're getting married and try to set up a family.

...and, meanwhile, as we've read in the article about Liz Gould on Seed, stress inhibits neurogenesis. Is all of this a good idea?

I'm rambling becuase I'm deep in and suffering from the stress myself of being pre-tenure faculty, and trying to figure out how to cope with the concept of Get Funded Or Die.


Yeah, one reason I'm now rather glad I didn't go into industry was that the boom went bust shortly after that -- I might have been exceedingly well paid for about a year.

And I certainly do know Bert and Janet! Good people.

Oh, my! It all seems so simple. The honest, open and altruistic practice of science, the search for truth by a method that all must eventually agree upon and reproduce, is its own reward. The high E/A members of the species will always be at a disadvantage in inverse proportion to which this "raison de etre" can be achieved (E=estrogen; A=androgen).

Wasn't there someone who said "It's evolution, dammit, read my lips."---Or am I confused?

[Despite everything, I believe that people (even Harvey B.) are really good at heart---modified from Anne Frank]

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 07 Mar 2006 #permalink

Sometimes I think it might be worth a cut in pay to deal with less sexist crap. Sadly, there would be no corresponding cut in expenses.

I know of no one who went into academe for the money (except, perhaps, some B-school types who thought they could make some significant fraction of what they'd have made in the private sector, if only they could have hacked it). While there are oodles of undergrads who seem to think college is only for picking up marketable skills (mostly ... in the B-school), almost all the science majors I know are in it for love. They're not counting future paychecks; they're getting set to crack the mysteries of the universe.

That reality lowers the boom on so many of them (especially on so many women) makes me profoundly sad.

I left academia early on to try to be active for environmental causes for charities and voluntary organisations in the UK. I was very succesful but even when I was running an oraganisation with twenty staff and a hundred students I wasn't earning that much more than Tara was as a technician.

It's not all about money - but I certainly sacrificed lots of that 'for the cause'. I'm 45 male and I don't have a family - looking back on my life I probably didn't seem to be a great prospect for my partners - when my contemparies were busy salting away their investments from the money they made on the stock exchange ( and I'm talking about people who studied 'Ecological Science' folks). Sacrificing some cash for a higher ideal is not a bad thing. But a sacrifice is just that - giving up something now for a higher ideal.

I want to see more women in science - (Tara is a great example - I loved her story about giving birth to her daughter at about the same time she had do her finals). I can't give a reason why - but I don't feel I need to. We underappreciate what women have done in science already - Rosalind Franklin should be credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA - with Crick and Watson as minor players.


When young girls can look up and appreciate their mothers as the brightest people around, and doing 'science' as an everyday job we'll start to make some progress.

Until then I'll look to Tara as a great example of what's possible: - human - 'sexy' - a great communicator- and very, very , bright!

My favorite example of "should have had a Nobel Prize" is Jocelyn Bell (whose name I believe I just mispelled), but that's because I'm an astronomer....

I teach at Vanderbilt, which is one of the US News&World Report "top 20" colleges. (Insofar as you place any weight in rankings like that, which shouldn't be too terribly far....) Yet, here, there is an attitude amongst a sizable portion of the student body that they're here for job training. Pretty sad, given the opportunities for broad intellectual pursuits available to the college student.


I am going to arrest this particular part:

Most people go to work primarily in order to earn a paycheck. Workers prefer a higher salary to a lower salary.

This is simply not true. I don't know of anyone who only chooses on the basis of the paycheck. Yes, if the choice is between two similar jobs, but otherwise no.

When I was younger, I used to work in a warehouse - we worked our asses off, and earned quite a lot of money ($40.000 or $50.000 per year). However, the job was crap, and the working hours were insane, so people didn't keep doing that.

Now, I am on the way to sign a contract for a new job. It's not the best paid I could get (though it pays fairly well), but it has some interesting work, and covers the things that I want to work with. That's more imortant than earning more.

By Kristjan Wager (not verified) on 07 Mar 2006 #permalink

While there are oodles of undergrads who seem to think college is only for picking up marketable skills (mostly ... in the B-school), almost all the science majors I know are in it for love. They're not counting future paychecks; they're getting set to crack the mysteries of the universe.

I agree with that. I think going into science for fame and fortune or whatever are definitely not very good motivations.

On the number of women with the title "Professor", I recall writing a letter in second year (that almost made me a campus celebrity) that annoyed pretty much all the feminist groups. They were complaining that there weren't enough women professors and they suggested 'fast tracking' some female faculty promotions to level up the numbers. I pointed out that doing so would just degrade the ability and competence of the faculty 'fast track' promoted like this. This was because earning a professorship is something I've always thought was an acknowledgement of years of solid contribution to your field of science.

I thought a better solution was to increase the number of female graduates staying on to do a doctoral degree. Then, making sure the university had hiring practices that encouraged women to take and hold more academic positions in science departments.

Evidentally, that solution wasn't quite 'fair' enough and I was resoundly criticised for, well I dunno, having a penis I guess.

I didn't think it was such a bad idea :(

I pointed out that doing so would just degrade the ability and competence of the faculty 'fast track' promoted like this.

Curse you snacks, they distracted me so I forgot a few words. That sentence should read:

I pointed out that doing so would just be demeaning to the ability and competence of the faculty 'fast track' promoted like this.

Too much sugar...

It's odd that probably the most inspiring individual I met as an undergrad was my female biology prof and work/independent study "boss."


I am interested in issues of gender and science, particularly biology. The experience of women in biology, especially in aquatic biology, is a specific focus for the portion of my work that is historical. Closely related is research into the development of women's relationship to nature. A long-term interest is the biology of Ichthyophthirius, a parasite of freshwater fish. Broadly related work deals with the nature of the biological individual and how conceptions of boundaries shape study of the individual.

* Kaufman, J.S., M.S. Ewing, D.M. Montgomery, A.E. Hyle, and P.A. Self. 2003. From Girls in Their Elements to Women in Science: Rethinking Socialization through Memory-Work. Peter Lang Publishing: New York.
* Warner, P.C. and M.S. Ewing. 2002. Wading in the water: Women aquatic biologists coping with clothing, 1877-1945. BioScience 52:97-104.
* Van Den Bussche, R.A., S.R. Hoofer, C.P. Drew and M.S. Ewing. 2000. Characterization of histone H3/H4 gene region and phylogenetic affinity of Ichthyophthirius multifiliis based on H4 DNA sequence variation. Mol. Phyl. Evol. 14:461-468.
* Ewing, M.S., V.S. Blazer, D.L. Fabacher, E.E. Little and K.M. Kocan. 1999. Channel catfish response to ultraviolet-B radiation. J. Aqu. An. Health. 11:192-195.
* Ewing, M.S., A.E. Hyle, J. S. Kaufman, D.M. Montgomery, and P. A. Self. 1999. The hard work of remembering: Memory work as narrative research. In: Feminist Empirical Research: Emerging Perspectives on Qualitative and Teacher Research, ed. J. Addison and S. J. McGee. Heinemann Boyton/Cook: Portsmouth NH, pp. 112-126.
* Keller, E.F. and M.S. Ewing. 1993. The kinds of "individuals" one finds in evolutionary biology. In: Evolutionary Ethics, ed. M.H. Nitecki and D.V. Nitecki. State University of New York Press:Albany. pp. 349-357.

By wildlifer (not verified) on 07 Mar 2006 #permalink

Phil posts a lot of odd (and strong) opinions on his site, I suspect primarily to generate discussion. He is very smart, but sometimes he forgets that being smart doesn't mean you know everything.

I do enjoy your site immensely, I've learned quite a lot here.

I think many of you are getting carried away with the (misguided) argument that "well, it's not ALL about the money", or "I don't know ANYBODY who got into this for the fame and fortune, so suck it up" (I'm paraphrasing, and the emphasis is mine). As far as I can tell, the author of the article doesn't imply that THE reason men and/or women are getting into academic science is for the money (seems ridiculously obvious). In fact, the author makes an EXCELLENT point when he states simply that:
"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States".
Moreover, his statetment regarding career trajectory and average age of a successful scientist is pretty damned right on, whether we want to admit it or not. The point is that it is very doubtful that any of us got into this academic science gig for the "fame and fortune". If you want fame and fortune, academic science is the least likely place you're going to find it. That's pretty damned obvious. However, if you're looking for obscurity and refuge, then this is the place to be. Anyway, call me a "frustrated idealist", but when I got into this gig, I truly thought that I would AT LEAST have a semblance of both financial and job security following years (even decades) of tireless sacrafice in school (financial, social, emotional, and otherwise). That is how it works, right? You sacrafice your ass off in school obtaining a good education and incurring a load of debt. You don't fret though, because the reward will come post-graduation, when you get those three little letters after your name, and with them comes security in the form of a good job that offers at least some financial freedom. Yeah, right. In the end, I see little reward in the form of job and financial security (again, NOT looking for fame and fortune here folks, just maybe the ability to purchase a house one day). All that I am facing, as far as I can tell, is more risk, and years of investment with little or no return over the long run. The writing is on the wall, in more places than just this article. The question is, what to do when you love teaching and you love sharing your knowledge, but you can't afford health insurance?

--another female in biology.


Maybe I'm just confused 'cause it's almost 1AM here, but you seem to be contradicting yourself in the first paragraph (and then from your first to your second). Indeed, the author isn't saying that people go into science because of the money--he's musing about why to go into it despite the money, and who it makes sense for. Indeed, many people avoid science and go elsewhere (such as business) because the pay is better, as he notes. My annoyance with his article is summed up in the first paragraph of the post--I think he's delved too much into stereotypes, without looking at the rest of the data.

Additionally, no one is really questioning his analysis of career trajectory and age, but certainly his comparison salaries are a bit optimistic, to put it mildly. He says in a mocking manner early in the article:

In short, some young people think that science is a good career for the same reason that they think being a musician or actor is a good career: "I can't decide if I want to be a scientist like James Watson, a musician like Britney Spears, or an actor like Harrison Ford."

yet then uses the salaries of "top" people in their fields to compare to what the average scientist could be making at the same age. Apples and oranges, to be sure.

Certainly many here understand and sympathize with what you're going through. As Janet noted:

That reality lowers the boom on so many of them (especially on so many women) makes me profoundly sad.

For many, academia doesn't provide enough return on the investment--and that's likely one reason so many women leak out of the pipeline along the way, as I detailed in the post. More needs to be done about it (IMO as a woman in science, of course).