Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement [Preview]

Why do men dominate the fields of science, engineering and mathematics?

The Enduring Glass Ceiling

Perhaps most troubling is the thought that a skilled, confident scientist could climb to the top and still face discrimination when she gets there. Nevertheless, plenty of research suggests that people's perception of a job as stereotypically masculine or feminine results in a bias in hiring and compensating candidates or employees who are male and female, respectively. Even though social psychologists agree that the overt sexism that existed decades ago in the U.S. and in many other countries is now rare, they say it has been replaced by unconscious sexism in some situations.

The real-world impact of covert biases on female achievement in science is not well studied because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding peer review, the process by which many aspects of a scientist's career—awarding of grants, acceptance of academic papers for publication and decisions about hiring—are judged by a panel of other, often anonymous, scientists.

There has been one thorough study of the real-world peer-review process. Biologists Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold of the University of Gothenburg gained access to the Swedish Medical Research Council's data on postdoctoral fellowship awards only after a battle in court. Shortly before the investigators published their study in 1997, the United Nations had named Sweden the leading country in the world with respect to equal opportunities for men and women. Even so, men dominated Swedish science. At the time, women received 44 percent of Swedish biomedical doctoral degrees but held only 25 percent of postdoctoral positions and 7 percent of professional positions.

What Wennerås and Wold discovered was shocking. Female applicants received lower mean scores in all areas in which they were evaluated: scientific competence, quality of proposed methodology and relevance of the research proposal. It was possible that the women applicants were less qualified. To test this possibility, the investigators computed scientific productivity based on the applicant's total number of publications, number of first-author publications, quality of each publication and number of times other scientific papers cited their work. By these measures, the most productive group of female researchers was rated as comparable in ability to the least productive male researchers. All other women were rated below all the men.

The authors of this study concluded that the peer-review process in what is arguably the most gender-equal nation in the world is rife with sexism. These results provide a strong rationale for making the peer-review process more transparent. Despite these findings, which were published in the top-ranked international scientific journal Nature, there has been no progress toward making the peer-review process more open.

Finally, we cannot consider success at work without considering the effort needed for families to function and maintain a home. Even when husbands and wives both work full-time, women continue to assume most of the child care duties and to shoulder most of the responsibility for tending to sick and elderly family members. Women work, on average, fewer hours per week and spend more time on family and household tasks than comparably educated men do. For women, having children is associated with lower income and a reduced probability of attaining tenure. In contrast, men show a slight tendency to benefit professionally when they become fathers. Therefore, the different roles that women and men play in family care can also explain their differential participation in demanding careers.

or subscribe to access other articles from the October 2012 publication.
Digital Issue $9.99
Digital Subscription $19.99 Subscribe
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article