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For Women in Climate Sciences, a Struggle to Find a Voice

Beset by subtle biases, women are struggling to find their place in academia, with consequences for all of us
WoPhy 2011



J. Paxon Reyes/Flickr

In surprising numbers, women in climate science in particular and the physical sciences in general are abandoning academic careers. 

The reasons are as varied as the individuals - some leave for maternity issues or other family pressures, others give up in the face of subtle gender bias within the academic world. And others feel there are better platforms than a university position to apply the science they love and to speak out to a broader audience, with greater impact.

Regardless of the cause, the female brain drain from the academy has an impact on climate science, say researchers. A 2008 study found that while 34 percent of all geosciences doctoral degrees were awarded to females, women comprised only 8 percent of top-ranking geosciences faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities.

Scientific inquiry is surely at stake, said Mary Anne Holmes, a mineralogist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former president of the Association for Women Geoscientists.

"Women may have a different way of asking questions about the science and communicating the consequences," Holmes said.

Studies have shown that groups make better choices when group members have diverse experiences and points of view, Holmes noted. It's not that women look at the data and see some big feminine question that's not being asked or that men don't ask good questions, she added. Men "just don't ask all the questions." 

Environmental scientist Amy Luers found the nonprofit setting more fitting than academia for her career goals. "I wanted to be at the intersection of science, policy and action," she said.

That would have been hard to do as an academic scientist, she said. "It's rare that a scientist at an academic research institution gets to really see the fruits of their labor put into practice in a significant way in their lifetime," said Luers, climate change director for the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a San Francisco-based non-profit.

Societal conflicts
There are also societal pressures. In 2008 Nicole Heller was an expectant mother with a job offer in hand from New York's Eugene Lang College. It was, in some respects, a dream offer: A tenure track position teaching environmental science.

But Heller, who studies how ecosystems respond to climate change, turned it down. Maternity leave was an issue. Her husband was in graduate school, and her family was in California. And she was eager to make a big impact with her work in terms of advancing human understanding of environmental problems.

Instead, she accepted a new position as a California-based scientist with Climate Central, a startup non-profit focused on communicating the science and effects of climate change to policymakers and the public.

"I wanted to see the impacts right away, to communicate really directly about the science that I felt really passionate about. I thought I might be better able to do that outside the university," she said.

Tremendous pressure
Heller wasn't done with the university, it turns out. But work-family balance may be one of the most obvious barriers to women's pursuit of academic science careers. Young scientists trying to become established in their fields face tremendous pressure, according to Julie Brigham-Grette, a paleoclimate scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

But it's not just family issues: Research now shows that women experience subtle, pervasive gender bias beginning as students and extending to the highest levels of their careers, causing many to leave the field.

As a geosciences student coming up in the 1970s and 1980s, Brigham-Grette said gender bias was almost expected. "I wanted to study climate change in the Arctic, and not many women did that," she said. "I had one professor tell me I could come along as a cook."

Brigham-Grette noted most male mentors were supportive of her research interests and goals, and colleges and universities have come a long way in breaking down gender barriers in the past 30 years. But there is still work to be done, and now Brigham-Grette sees herself as a role model for both male and female science students interested in an academic career. "Men need to see that women can succeed at this just as much as women need to," she said.

Bias persists
Still, subtle bias against women persists, said Jo Handelsman, a biologist at Yale University and lead author of a study looking at gender bias among faculty from major universities that was published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Handelsman and her team randomly assigned either a male or female name to the application material of an undergraduate student who was applying for a laboratory manager position. More than 100 science faculty members from various universities were then asked to rate the application materials. Both male and female faculty members rated the male applicant as significantly more competent than the identical female applicant. They also selected a higher starting salary and more career mentoring for the male applicant.

The bias may be unintentional, said Handelsman, but it shapes women's beliefs about their science abilities, which may influence their career goals and persistence in the academic field. 

"We have to rethink our assumptions about why women choose to leave. Would they be making the same choices as they would be if they had a man's name? Given the data, I have to wonder whether these choices aren't being distorted by experience of bias," she said.

For those women who chose to stay, the path may be one of sacrifice. For Brigham-Grette, whose summers often involved expeditions to northeast Arctic Russia, her biggest regret is having lost that time to spend with her own children on family vacations. 

Powerful platform
"I feel so blessed to have both a career that I love and a family," she said. Still, she admits, she's not sure how she would have done it without a lot of help from her husband, a self-employed carpenter who was able to plan jobs around her schedule and take time off when the kids were young. 

From her perch at the University of Massachusetts, Brigham-Grette feels she has a powerful platform – and an obligation – to communicate the science of global warming. She's given talks at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and to peers at scientific talks worldwide, as well as to church groups, women's groups and retirement groups in her community. 

She feels like she can connect with people who may not otherwise get the message from a female perspective. After all, she adds, women make up half the public needing to know about global warming. "So the voice should come from women as well as men."

Back to the academy
After four years at Climate Central, Nicole Heller decided to give academia another shot. She left her post at the non-profit in June to take a position as a visiting professor at Duke University in North Carolina. 

She hopes to craft for herself a hybrid sort of position where she can focus on both research and being an advocate for the science of climate change and ecology.

"When I first started teaching I didn't grasp the power that a professor has to be a community leader, to make change every day by broadening the way people think and empowering the next generation," Heller said. "I think the university really is the premiere place for that."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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