Academia Challenges for Women in STEM: Training, Discrimination, and Policy
Posted January 18, 2018
The expansion of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the United States is imperative for innovation and global competitiveness. And yet, women remain an underused resource in achieving our nation’s STEM goals. According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2017, 47% of the workforce in the United States is comprised of women, however only 24% of STEM jobs are held by women. Men and women receive college degrees at similar rates, yet women are vastly underrepresented in STEM majors, and women who do receive STEM degrees are less likely to pursue a career in their field. From institutional barriers and cultural challenges to persistent biases and failed policies, women in STEM face numerous hurdles when they attempt to advance in their careers.
On September 7, 2017, the Academy’s Science Alliance presented Academia Challenges for Women in STEM: Training, Discrimination, and Policy. The event provided a comprehensive look at the recent Elsevier report Gender in the Global Research Landscape and included a panel with scientists in academia and in non-academic enterprises to discuss the challenges women in academia face when pursuing careers in STEM.
Speaker and Panelists
Featured Speaker and Panelists
Ann Gabriel, keynote speaker and Vice President of Academic and Research Relations at Elsevier, began with a presentation of statistics on the current state of gender inequality in scientific research and publishing. She noted that this data creates a unique opportunity to systematically analyze the impact of gender, sex, and diversity in research. In addition to publishing their own data, Elsevier actively promotes studies on gender in STEM and supports global gender initiatives, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality program, a certification for gender equality in businesses.
Gabriel went on to discuss the methodology, findings, and implications of Elsevier’s Gender in the Global Research Landscape report, which examines gender differences in research output, impact, collaboration, and innovation. The report is based on more than 20 years of data from 12 countries and regions, spanning 27 different subject areas. Elsevier completed this comprehensive analysis with their online citation and abstract database, Scopus, which includes over 22,500 titles and 12 million author profiles from all over the world. Using country specific gender classifiers, Elsevier data scientists calculated the gender probability for each author, and assigned a gender to authors whose first name had an 85% or higher probability of being masculine or feminine.
The first chapter of this report focuses on author output and research quality in relation to gender. Although the report found that there are more male than female researchers, the number of women publishing appears to be increasing across all 12 study countries, with about 40% of authors in the United States currently being women. The proportion of female researchers is very different depending on the field of research, with proportions as low as 25% in the physical sciences. To determine relative article impact, Elsevier data scientists used a field-weighted citation impact factor, whereby differences in impact factors across study fields, article types, and study years were standardized. Across countries, female researchers published less than male researchers, however, in the United States, female authors produced research with slightly higher downloads and impact factors, a result unique from other study countries.
The second chapter looks at gender differences in social aspects of research, such as leadership, collaboration, and mobility. The frequency of women in leadership, measured by last authorship, is very discipline specific. Women are more likely to be last authors in articles published in the life and health sciences, specifically medicine. Interdisciplinary collaboration rates across both academic and corporate sectors are similar between men and women, however women seem to experience more barriers to collaborating internationally. Women are less likely than men to engage in international collaboration, and experience less international mobility in their careers.
The third chapter explores gender in research as its own academic discipline. Across all study countries, gender research as its own field is growing, both in the size and complexity of projects. The United States has historically produced the largest amount of gender focused research in academia, however other regions have recently increased their production. From 1996–2015, the European Union, for example, quadrupled its production of gender research, thereby exceeding the United States.
Gabriel firmly believes that the results of the Elsevier report attest to the importance of women in science. It is clear that women produce high quality research with comparable, if not higher, impact factors than men, and women are more likely to engage in highly interdisciplinary work. In the future, Elsevier would like to perform further authorship analyses using more nuanced methods of gender assignment in a broader range of countries to give additional insight into the strengths of female researchers. Additional information on how publishing record affects an individual’s career trajectory, tenure status, and salary would shed more light on the causes of the leaky pipeline for women in STEM. Gabriel states that the ultimate goals of Elsevier are community engagement through broad dissemination of gender report results in hopes of engaging stakeholders in discussion of the importance of data-informed policy. A stronger evidence base will only improve how organizations design and implement policy in regard to gender biases in research.
Following a brief Q&A on the report findings, a lively panel discussion ensued with Dr. Anthony Boccanfuso, the President of the University Industry Demonstration Partnership; Dr. Carol Shoshkes Reiss, a Professor of Biology and Neural Science at the College of Global Public Health and Director of the NYU Science Training Enhancement Program; Dr. Gilda A. Barabino, the Dean and Berg Professor at The Grove School of Engineering at The City College of New York; and Dr. Jason Sheltzer a fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
The panel began by identifying barriers to women in science and discussing effective ways to break down these barriers. Challenges for women pursuing a career in STEM begin in the earliest stages of their education and span to the latest parts of their career. Dr. Boccanfuso points out that counselling as young as high school can encourage students to pursue certain fields based on their gender. Once a woman has chosen to enter a STEM field, unconscious biases remain. Women are less likely to be recruited and hired at a research institutions, and letters of recommendation for women are more likely to focus on their teaching and training, as opposed to their research, ability, or career trajectory. Additional barriers include feelings of isolation in male dominated scientific groups, gendered power differentials, and pervasive sexual harassment with no adequate reporting mechanisms.
Panelists then considered ways to improve the success and integration of women scientists both at the individual and institutional level. Dr. Reiss encouraged both faculty and students to participate in women in science groups to improve visibility of female researchers by academic institutions and provide validation for women sharing similar experiences. Dr. Barabino encouraged women to become highly engaged in scientific meetings, in their institutional committees, and in service to their communities. Scientific organizations can elevate female researchers through invited symposiums and enforce gender equality standards by institutions receiving funding. Dr. Sheltzer expanded upon the role of men in promoting gender equality in research institutions. As studies such as Elsevier’s consistently show that giving equal opportunities to women and minority groups improves the quality of scientific work, men should be equally invested in improving diversity in science. Strong, positive mentoring will be imperative to encourage the next generation of female scientists and change systemic attitudes toward diversity. The New York Academy of Science offers multiple platforms in which to engage as a mentor and as a mentee at the faculty, postdoc, and graduate student level.