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A gender gap to innovation: Responding to the underrepresentation of women in science

September 19, 2011

Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than a quarter of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to data released in August by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The analysis, titled "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation," notes that women also hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees and that women who do receive STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in STEM occupations. The report echoes similar studies conducted over the past decade.

In response to this latest report and the continuing underrepresentation of women in science, we sought insight from within the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the UW-Madison community regarding the causes and consequences of this gender gap.

What troubles you most about this report's findings and the gender gap in STEM fields?

Tracey Holloway
Tracey Holloway

Tracey Holloway, associate professor of environmental studies: To me, the most troubling finding is that even with STEM degrees, women are less likely to work in a STEM field professionally. Women like science and math, they are good at it, and they obtain the necessary credentials, but for some reason they do not choose to continue along a scientific path. Why not?

Micah Hahn, Ph.D. candidate in Environment and Resources: I was surprised to read that only 26 percent of women (compared to 40 percent of men) with STEM degrees go on to work in STEM jobs. This was troubling for me because it suggests that women, more so than men, spend time getting trained in STEM fields and then run into obstacles once it is time to enter the workforce.

What do you see as important efforts to encourage and support young women as they consider degrees in STEM fields and seek out related jobs?

Hahn: It has been important for me to have strong female role models and peers as I move forward in my training. Although I don't know that I would have acknowledged it at the time, I think that running from chemistry lab down to collegiate soccer practice with three or four other female peers every week made my decision to major in biology very normal and acceptable. If I had been the only girl trying to balance sports and science, I might have been less likely to go that route.

Nancy Mathews
Nancy Mathews

Nancy Mathews, professor of environmental studies and director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service: In my own experience, and now with a teenage daughter, I think that it is critical for parents and teachers to encourage their kids to get out-of-classroom experience in the STEM disciplines while in high school or middle school. Up until they enter college, they face a myriad of social pressures from their peers or perhaps even teachers that affect their decision on what discipline to pursue. It has been the experiences at summer camps or through volunteer work that have most influenced my daughter's thinking on her own choice entering college. I think back on it and can say the same thing with my own decision to pursue biology.

Regarding graduate school and retention in their discipline, I believe that young women are more savvy than I was 30 years ago when I chose to go back to grad school. They more carefully observe their parents and teachers, and are making more informed decisions about the life that they want to lead. They see that their women professors, or perhaps mothers, struggle to balance their family and professional life. These experiences send a powerful message to young women about what their own life might be like if they chose this pathway. I think more students (both men and women) are saying, "No," that is not the life that I want.

It is incredibly important for grad students, and undergrads, to have frank discussions with their professors and mentors. I don't think we do anyone any favors by sugar-coating our lives at the university. These reflections are difficult to have with students but more important than ever. The university's efforts to support faculty and staff in this area are extremely important.

Given that the expectations of STEM professionals in and out of academia are so high, and the definition of what we deem "success" fairly narrow, I don't believe that we have a model that will encourage more young women to jump into these types of careers. The private sector has done much to increase flexibility for parents in general; however, I don't believe the unwritten standards of success have changed. We are expected to perform at an exceptionally high level, one that is often compromised when we attempt to balance our personal and professional lives.

Cathy Middlecamp
Cathy Middlecamp

Cathy Middlecamp, associate professor of environmental studies and Howe Bascom professor of integrated liberal studies: Supporting and encouraging women is indeed important. But this approach runs the risk of labeling women as "needy" of support. Rather than fixing the women, I think we should fix the system. The current emphasis on "rigor" in STEM courses tends to place a value on the number of students who don't succeed. I'd like to reverse this and measure the success of our instructors by the success of our students -- all students.

Jennifer Sheridan, executive director of the UW-Madison Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI): Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden did some research ("Do Babies Matter") a couple of years back about why women grad students in the sciences don't want to become academics. They said they see their female professors' lives, and just don't want that for themselves. It doesn't explain why women get pushed out of the entire STEM workforce, but it is important to note how important the graduate school experience is for women, if we want them to stay in the pipeline (whether inside the academy or in industry).

Holloway: There are a lot of valuable efforts ongoing -- from an individual advisor encouraging his or her students to seek STEM jobs, to broader initiatives through universities and professional societies. Since 2002, I have worked with colleagues across the United States and Europe, including Galen McKinley and Erika Marin-Spiotta here at UW-Madison, to found and lead the Earth Science Women's Network (ESWN). ESWN was specifically formed to build community among women in the environmental sciences and support their career development. We grew from a group of six friends exchanging emails to now nearly 1,500 students, postdocs, professors and scientists around the world.

With email exchanges, career advice, networking events and professional development workshops, ESWN is actively promoting women as they enter the job market and advance in their careers. In fact, in 2009 our group received a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to advance our efforts, so we are able to move forward with a lot of exciting new initiatives. In the summer of 2012 we will be hosting a career development workshop here in Madison, focused on skills for networking and communication.

Do you have any thoughts on possible factors contributing to the underrepresentation of women in STEM? Any personal anecdotes you might share?

Micah Hahn
Micah Hahn

Hahn: I have had a few run-ins with "the old boys club" since I began my Ph.D. training. When I'm at conferences or in meetings with professional organizations, I am often the youngest person in the room and likely either the only female or one of just a handful. There have been times when I haven't been invited out for drinks or dinner, and although I can't attribute it solely to my gender, it feels like the older male scientists (all of whom are friends) sometimes forget to invite me. I think that having too many of these experiences might turn young female scientists away from STEM fields.

Holloway: In my own career, and in talking with students over the years, I know that deciding a career path can be very intimidating. Who knows at age 18 -- or even 25 -- where you'll fit best, succeed, thrive and be happy? With such a big decision, it's natural to look at a community and say "Could this be me? Would I fit in?" Unfortunately, there are not all that many public examples of women scientists, mathematicians and engineers. So, when a young woman looks around for role models -- or peers in science -- who she can really relate to, she might not find anyone.

I personally never considered a career in math or science in high school, and I entered college planning on majoring in political science or history. Just by circumstance, however, most of my best friends from my freshman dorm were all studying engineering or science or math. This community of peers helped me feel like a major in applied math -- and continuing on to a science Ph.D. -- made sense; I could see lots of people like me doing the same thing.

I think environmental science offers a wonderful opportunity to connect with students -- both women and men -- who may not think of themselves as "science types" but care about the world around us. Once students see how physics, math, chemistry and engineering help solve major global problems, these fields may attract a wider group of future scientists.

Mathews: I believe that women grow weary of the many intangible ways that they are compromised in achieving their potential by cultural and social norms. In my experience, both in the private sector and academia, women face continual challenges to their ability to perform at their highest capacity and these challenges undermine their self confidence, hence their willingness to continue to strive toward the standard measures of "success." This plays out in a myriad of ways -- from disrespectful interruptions during conversations, to their ideas being usurped and credited to a male peer, or to loss of credibility when publically challenged by a dominant male. These types of experiences are cumulative, and contribute to an erosion of motivation.

Some of my closest professional women colleagues, now in their early to mid 50s, have just decided that the energy investment is not worth it. Rather than going after dean, provost and chancellor jobs, they choose to return to teaching or perhaps early retirement.

Jennifer Sheridan
Jennifer Sheridan

Sheridan: For those who do stay in academia, equity has definitely not been reached for women faculty.

Women faculty are in the minority in most of our STEM departments. Women full professors seem to be paid less than their male peers. Women don't receive awards and honors in proportion to their presence on the faculty. Our surveys indicate women report worse climate in their departments; they are not treated with respect and they feel isolated. You can find these kinds of data from WISELI (take a look at the PowerPoint to see some graphics) and in our full climate survey report (the climate summary and tables begin on page 69 of the linked PDF).

The National Academies, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health are beginning to conclude that unconscious bias plays a role in the inequities we see for women and men in the STEM pipeline, and in academic careers. Many universities, including UW-Madison, are specifically working to combat this type of prejudice.

Final thoughts?

Middlecamp: If I can believe what so many of my students have told me, I've made a difference in their lives. In fact, just recently a woman who took my chemistry course years ago introduced herself to me (with a smile) at a store. But who made a difference for me? Primarily, it has been men. My male colleagues, both here and across the nation, deserve a lot of credit. Never doubt what difference one person can make -- male or female.

Mathews: I believe that institutions need to support continued research on the mechanisms that support this erosion from the work force. They need to acknowledge that this research is indeed mainstream -- and begin acting on the recommendations and outcomes at an institutional level. WISELI is an excellent example -- their climate surveys hold a wealth of information about our own campus as a laboratory.

We need to stress the importance of recognizing that professional women are still, culturally, expected to carry the load of child rearing. Some of this has changed, but I do see there is a strong pushback by young women to embrace these expectations. I see more women changing careers and dropping out of the "fast lane" and truly embracing their role as a parent.