Need more paleontological women

The latest issue of Priscum, the newsletter of the Paleontological Society (pdf), has an interesting focus: where are the women in paleontology? They have a problem, in that only 23% of their membership are women, and I hate to say it, but the stereotype of a paleontologist is Roy Chapman Andrews — most people don't imagine a woman when they hear the word paleontologist (unjustly, I know!)

On the other hand, 37% of the paleontology presentations at the GSA were by women. They're there, but they aren't getting far up the ladder of success. They're not achieving high status positions within the society at the same rate as men, and then there's this skewed distribution:


So women are over-represented in the student category, but under-represented in the professional category. The optimistic way to look at that is that there is an opportunity for change, and maybe that wave of current students will move on up and change the distribution ten years from now. More pessimistically, it suggests that there could be barriers that preferentially block the advancement of women in the field; if the distribution doesn't change in the next decade, that says that there were more frustrated women who left the discipline than men.

So why would women experience greater barriers to advancement? It isn't about evil men keeping the women down, and I wish we could clear away the resentment some men express when they hear that there are greater obstacles to women's progress — too often I hear angry responses to accusations of academic sexism taken personally, as if it were a statement of personal criminality. It's a product of the system, and men and women mostly contribute to it by neglect and an unwillingness to change the status quo.

What I most often see is statements of fact that I don't disagree with, such as that women on average have lower publication rates than men, but the problem is that these advocates of blaming the inherent properties of women for their failure don't think it through. Why do women have lower publication rates? Are there structural/cultural/professional properties that conflict and cause problems that men don't see? And most importantly, if there are, what can we do to correct those institutional biases? Just saying that "women publish less" begs the question.

This article had a very helpful diagram illustrating the contributing factors, taken from a paper discussing a similar problems among evolutionary biologists.


Right there in the center is issue of lower publication rates in women, but it looks deeper at consequences and causes. Follow the arrows. I've seen similar charts before — it looks a heck of a lot like an extinction vortex, a self-perpetuating cycle of defeat.

Another article in the same newsletter describes the distribution of the leadership of the Paleontological Society. It shows steady improvement in the proportion of women in the society leadership, but still, most of the executive positions have been held by women less than 10% of the time. The more recently the position was created, the higher the proportion of women. I also noticed one outlier: 67% of the Education and Outreach Coordinators (a very new position) have been women. That's another stereotype, too, that women are better suited to teaching. Look at the diagram above: going into teaching is also one of the factors that hurts research productivity, and as long as research is more highly valued than teaching, and teaching is considered 'women's work', it's going to skew representation of the sexes.

They have a proposal to correct the imbalance. Notice that it doesn't involve simply declaring that they have equality of opportunity (which they don't!) and doing nothing. Correcting these kinds of biases requires active intervention.

Societies are strengthened by incorporating diversity (of gender, of ethnicity, of abilities, of ideas, and of disciplines). As a society, we need to be aware of equity issues and take intentional steps to counteract imbalances. The recommendations below relate to increasing ALL types of diversity. So far, we have data on gender equity, but there are many other types of diversity we should work to improve. This set of recommendations applies to all of them.

Intentional nominations. Think about the excellent female colleagues you have. Now nominate at least one of them for a leadership position (we have several open this year!) or a society award. All Society positions are open nominations, so please share your ideas!

Mentoring. Establish professional relationships with young women in paleontology (students and early career professionals). Spend some extra time at poster sessions meeting some of our student members. Encourage women to submit abstracts for oral presentations. Established women, share your career stories and experiences.

New initiatives. PS Council is dedicated to increasing equity for all types of diversity in our membership. Please share any ideas you may have for initiatives with [the author] or other council members—now and in the future.

More like this

Being judged less competent also affects publication rate far more directly than via "lower self-confidence", when the person organizing what will become a multi-author publication chooses male collaborators over females, or when grant reviewers subconsciously give higher marks to proposals with men at the helm. I have not personally experienced the former (about the latter, who can say?) but have seen clear evidence that some women do get marginalized by some men, reducing their opportunities for collaboration.

They have a problem, in that only 23% of their membership are women

That sounds very low. I wonder about the numbers of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (international, but easily half the membership is from the US), the Palaeontological Association (British) or the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists (small, perhaps too small for statistics).

Not saying the problem isn't real; this just sounds even worse than my experience.

when grant reviewers subconsciously give higher marks to proposals with men at the helm

In large fields, keeping the authors anonymous would eliminate this – but in small ones... I once submitted a manuscript to a journal with double-blind peer review ( = authors kept anonymous). The reviewer who chose to stay anonymous sounded very, very familiar in their style and arguments; if they are who my coauthor and I think they are, they know us personally. That was hard to avoid, because there aren't a lot of people in the world that could have evaluated that manuscript competently.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 13 Feb 2013 #permalink

In my field you know exactly who is behind both reviewed manuscripts and grant applications. The latter seems impossible to avoid, since any review panel must judge whether the PI is likely to complete the work, and any attached CV or description of published prior work identifies you. I know of an instance in which the review panel insisted that an applicant (not me!) wouldn't be able to complete a project because she had done a lot of work in a related subfield, which they seemed to blame her for spending time on. One does wonder whether a male applicant would have been so quickly dismissed.

Also doesn't consider sideways movement or movement of female students into commercial positions. When given the choice between a highly stressful academic career with low pay, or a lucrative geology career in engineering geology & mining geology, I ditched the high stress low pay option!

LOL women fail so hard.

Given ample opportunity, support and affirmative action they still underachieve compared to men.

Given ample opportunity, support and affirmative action

Precious little of any of these – while the oppression merrily continues. I know juicy tales of misogynists on hiring committees...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 17 Feb 2013 #permalink