Women Getting Science Ph.D.s Still Face Gender Barriers

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Women Getting Science Ph.D.s Still Face Gender Barriers

Women Getting Science Ph.D.s Still Face Gender Barriers

Aindrila Mukhopadhyay (right) is a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and leads a biofuels and systems biology team that is 70 percent female, an unusual occurrence in her field. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)
At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Staff scientist Aindrila Mukhopadhyay (right) leads a biofuels research and systems biology team, which includes many female postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)


Thousands of college students across California are graduating this month with science degrees. Some dream of careers as researchers and professors, like the people who taught them. But women working toward doctoral degrees in science face gender barriers that can derail their progress.

Data from the National Science Foundation show the number of women earning Ph.D.s in all branches of science has trended up over the last two decades. By 2013, women made up half the doctorates awarded in life sciences. That’s the good news. The bad news is having a doctorate in any branch of science doesn't eliminate gender bias, and the percentages of women with Ph.D.s in the physical sciences and engineering remain stubbornly low.

Even early in college, those fields attract relatively few women. For instance, an NSF table shows in 2012, 3.9 percent of female freshmen declared an intention to major in engineering, compared to 18.3 percent of males. That pattern holds at the high end of the academic food-chain as well: data show 20,000 women with doctorates are employed in the physical sciences, compared to 85,000 men with doctorates.

This complex, multifarious problem for women making their way into science professions has a beguilingly simple name: “the leaky pipeline.”


Not An Issue Of Personal Choice

University of Michigan earth sciences professor Ingrid Hendy says there's a common argument that women in their 30s, wanting to be both moms and professors, are making choices to drop out for a bit.

"I’m rolling my eyes at this point,” Hendy says. "It’s a lot more complex than that."

Indeed, says Joan Williams, law professor at UC Hastings and director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

“I also think it’s misleading to talk about this in terms of women making hard choices about their families," Williams says. "That’s not what’s going on here.”

She says scientists want to hire someone who can be hunched over their laptop working at 2 a.m. – not, say, caring for a sick kid.

“What’s going on here is that the ideal worker is being defined as someone with a stay-at-home wife," says Williams. "I call that sex discrimination, not women’s choices.”

And while it’s true that in certain branches of science, relatively few women ever start the path to a Ph.D., Williams says the problem of gender bias is pervasive across the field. Lots of female scientists report gender bias, and studies have demonstrated it -- like one from researchers at Yale University in 2012 called “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.”

Researchers sent more than a hundred faculty members identical resumes – half with a male applicant’s name, half with a female name – and asked, "Would you hire this person to run your lab?"


Though it was the exact same resume, both male and female faculty members viewed the male applicant as more competent. Not only that, they offered the female applicant fewer mentorship opportunities and lower starting pay.

Williams says there are ways to make a dent in this problem. For instance, just put the words “salary negotiable” on a job posting. While women are less likely to negotiate their salaries than men, a study showed those two words can disrupt this pattern, and markedly narrow the pay gap between men and women.

“That’s a good example of a bias interrupter,” Williams says.

Engineering Change

But it’s also just one small point along the pipeline from school to research and faculty positions. The pipeline is long, and its attendant leaks start long before graduate school.

“There’s a huge drop-off after high school education,” says Lina Nilsson, at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. Nilsson recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled “How to Attract Female Engineers.”

Engineering tends to rank on the very low end for female participation, with barely one in four doctorates awarded to women in 2013. Nilsson’s program, though, is drawing women in droves. The class has roughly equal numbers of women and men.

“Without even at any point explicitly planning to target women," Nilsson says, "we’re seeing these massive increases.”

The key, she says, seems to be connecting engineering to social impact – issues like poverty and inequality. Nilsson’s specialty is development engineering: helping countries get clean water, diagnose disease and so on. She says women are filling up similar classes across the country.

Marie Champagne loads samples into a centrifuge at UC Berkeley. Champagne studies paleo-climate, but says until just a few years ago, being a scientist wasn't at all on her radar. (Daniel Potter / KQED)
Marie Champagne loads samples into a centrifuge at UC Berkeley. Champagne says she didn't know she loved science until nearly the end of community college. (Daniel Potter / KQED)

‘I Would’ve Had No Idea’

In a lab one building over at Berkeley, Marie Champagne uses a powerful acid to prepare lake-bottom samples, which she spins in a centrifuge.

These samples are a window to what the climate was like thousands of years ago, Champagne says, based on clues like bits of pollen visible under a microscope.

“Growing up, I would’ve had no idea what paleo-climate was, let alone that I wanted to go into it.”

Champagne grew up near a small town in Mendocino County. She says there weren’t a lot of scientists in her life. She gravitated toward English as she entered community college. There, she had a teacher who was pivotal in identifying and developing her interests in earth science.

“I used to be a little bit more frightened of taking like a physics class," Champagne says. "I didn’t take physics until I was a senior -- and I loved it.”


Champagne starts her Ph.D. this fall at UC Santa Cruz.