Working for Justice

Opening the Pipeline for Women in Science

Just as women are over-represented in traditionally female fields such as teaching and childcare, they remain a scant presence in the so-called “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. According to recent U.S. census data, they make up only one-quarter of all STEM workers.

Although there are many reasons for this dearth, two new studies shed light on how we might get more women in the pipeline for STEM jobs. The first suggests that from a young age, girls are too often discouraged from seeing themselves as gifted in math and science, even by their own teachers. The latter demonstrates that female leaders are often better than male counterparts at recruiting talented female scholars.

Victor Lavy of the University of Warwick in England and Edith Sand of Tel Aviv University recently published a new study showing that grade-school teachers judge the work of female math students more harshly than they do when they are forced to grade work blindly. As The New York Times explained:

Beginning in 2002, the researchers studied three groups of Israeli students from sixth grade through the end of high school. The students were given two exams, one graded by outsiders who did not know their identities and another by teachers who knew their names.

In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects.

At the other end of the science pipeline, a 2014 study by Jason Sheltzer of MIT and Joan Smith of Twitter looked out how well elite science laboratories do at attracting female graduates. They found that the labs headed by male professors employed 36 percent female postdoctoral students, as compared to 46 percent in female-led labs. Moreover, they found that “elite male faculty—those whose research was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, or who had won a major career award—trained significantly fewer women than other male faculty members” whereas the labs of elite female faculty did not show a similar gender bias in employment. The authors concluded that “one cause of the leaky pipeline in biomedical research may be the exclusion of women, or their self-selected absence, from certain high-achieving laboratories” since these labs are feeders to academic appointments.

One contrast between the two studies particularly caught my eye: Although Sheltzer and Smith were able to compare female and male professors, the grade school teachers in the Lavy/Sand study were all women. Part of the take-home message seems to be that we need more women in leadership positions, but at the same time, we should not assume that women are themselves free of bias.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good.

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