Are women discriminated against in science?

GrrlScientist over at Science Blogs has an interesting article discussing the question of whether or not there is an inherent bias against women in science. Not being a scientist, I have no insider’s scoop on this question, but GrrlScientist does and her insights regarding the peer-review process are very interesting. It’s worth reading her whole article to find out how she comes to her conclusions, but here are a couple of highlights (below the fold):

The fact is that female scientists do not publish as often as male scientists. Why? Some people have told me that women do not produce scientific results that are of the same high quality as those produced by men (nor do they write life science blogs as well as men, apparently) and that male reviewers can readily recognize when a woman is the lead (or sole) author of a scientific paper because “women do science differently from men” (whatever that means). Basically, science is still a very sexist community where its female practitioners publish less frequently than men at least partially because of the peer-review system that is in place.

Instead of hand-wringing and asking “Why are there so few women in science? Why are they leaving?”, it is time for the community to begin reflecting on the behavioral data they are being confronted with. Basically, the scientific community makes it very difficult for women to remain in the sciences, and one way in which they do this is through a demonstrable bias against women in the review process.

I didn’t become a scientist because I was sidetracked by religion during the years when I would have otherwise gone to college. I’d definitely be interested in hearing from any other skepchicks who at one time wanted to be scientists but ended up doing something else.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. "I didn’t become a scientist because I was sidetracked by religion during the years when I would have otherwise gone to college."

    Damn, THAT resonates. Although my parents were sane enough to make me go to a real university, there were a couple of professions at which I would have been fantastic that were smothered in the cradle by religious fanaticism.

    Alas, though I have always loved science, I suffer from dyscalculea. Not being able to "speak" mathematics was actually more of a deterrant to my scientific career than my interest. *sigh!*

  2. The paper discussed in GrrlScientist's blog entry, while interesting, isn't by itself good enough evidence to support the conclusion that the peer-review process is biased against women. (Short version: not enough data, possibility of sampling bias.) I would be dismayed, but not terribly surprised, if a better statistical analysis led to the same result.

  3. If some people claim male reviewers could recognise when a female scientist is the lead author of a paper by the way it's written, it'd be interesting to have some idea what the differences are claimed to be.

    As well as sexism, if writer's names are known to reviewers, there can also be a bias towards people looking more favourably on someone with a greater reputation.

    Looking at the results of the study of Behavioural Ecology's publishing record,, I'd wonder that if, amongst women in the field, there was a significant *perception* of gender bias in peer-review, could there have been an increase in female submissions as a result of the editorial policy changing?

    If the policy change was publicised, the stronger the perception of a biased system, the more likely a woman scientist may have chosen to submit to BE rather than elsewhere. It'd be interesting to see what, if anything, happened to submission rates.

  4. I'm not a scientist, but I am in the tech field – where we have our own gender bias issues – and so I've seen these type of arguments before. I don't have the hard evidence to back it up, but I definitely believe there's a bias. So many of the arguments that hinge on women doing science differently than men, or not producing results the same quality as men, smack of trying to rationalize a problem instead of examining it.

  5. After going over that article, I would definitely agree that a double-blind peer-review process should be standard across all science journals. Now, for one, I think that the idea that women don't publish science to a quality that reaches men. That is silly. I also believe that data is data, and as such science would be blind to the gender of the experimenter. So a switch to double-blind reviewing would not hinder quality of science.

    Very interesting data. Here's hoping more studies are conducted to help bring it to the attention of the powers-that-be.

  6. I think it's odd that scientists claim to review articles looking for scientific merit, and should be inherently skeptical – yet they are willing to make the claim that women "do science differently" and imply that it is inferior to the way men "do science"… based on what, exactly?

    It's kind of a paradox, ain't it?

  7. The whole "women do science differently than men do" ironically plays into that feminist idea that science is a "man's way of knowing" and that "women's ways of knowing" are intuitive and better. It's one reason that I sometimes hesitate about using the word feminist. Why ironic? Because it leads to sex-based discrimination, which is what feminists are supposed to be against.

  8. I am also not a scientist (or a woman) but I can echo antiheroine's statements regarding a certain bias against women within the tech industry.

    It's not overt (well actually it was overt with my former manager but he also had a problem with people in the military and anyone two shades darker than an albino) in my experience but there are subtleties there that I think are more indicative of the fact that the vast majority of tech workers are men (especially those in positions of power, like myself).

  9. I think a blinded peer review system is a good idea anyway, because it also completely blows the conspiracy-theorist ideas of some pseudo-scientists out of the water: "No, your paper did not get rejected because other scientists think you're a loon, it got rejected because it's bad science."

  10. I wonder what arguments there are against double-blinding, apart from avoiding having a reviewer accidentally contact one of the authors looking for more information on the topic (maybe not an uncommon possibility in a small field?), and allowing reviewers to let editors know about conflicts of interest?

    Of course, even if there is double-blind reviewing, in some fields it will be fairly obvious where a paper is likely to have come from, and even in larger fields, double blinding isn't a perfect solution to old chums' networks if people know pretty much what their acquaintances are working on.

  11. I think that the "old chums' network" is a problem with the peer review system that puts both women and scientists from lesser-known universities at a disadvantage. I'm not sure what the ultimate solution is, other than getting more women plugged into that network. I do think that double-blind reviewing could help prevent some of the effects of unconscious bias against women. (And this is off topic, but I wonder if there are similar issues with "ethnic" names.)

  12. I would be interested to know if there's a difference among the sciences in terms of bias. For instance, is there more of a bias in so-called "men" sciences like math and physics and less in so-called "women" sciences like health care and psychology? Or is the bias, if present, relatively even?

    I myself have 2 degrees in science (working on a master's now) and I find that some profs have a tendency to treat male and female students differently (like more accepting of ideas, more respect for their work and praise, that kind of thing), but, even though the pattern was consistent within the particular researcher, I didn't notice it as worse for one sex over another between researchers. So it appears, unfortunately, that some researchers can have their own built-in biases even with their students, so that might translate to when they are reviewing papers as well.

    But then again, this is just my own anecdotal report so it may be absolute garbage in general terms. Who knows.

  13. There is still a lot of subtle sexism in the sciences, mostly in the getting women into higher degrees. I am a graduate student in physics, and I am the only female in my year of 14 men ! I am also yet to have a female professor. I definitely think that women and men in the sciences think differently, and probably look at scientific problems differently, but neither is better. I think we need those different approaches to solve complicated problems.

  14. I concur with sparks about the problem of getting women into higher level degrees. The situation seems to be getting better over time, but the rate of progress is still unacceptably low. As in many situations where bias is entrenched, the most effective "solution" may just be to wait until the older generation dies off!

    In the meantime, I can't think of a single reason why double-blind peer review shouldn't be enacted.

    I am curious, sparks, as to why you think women and men in the sciences think differently. I suspect you are right, but I would be interested in hearing your perspective.

  15. I don't have any evidence and this is just my opinion but I don't think women and men think that differently. In my experience in life two random men are likely to be as different to each other as a random women and man or two random women. What I mean is people think differently from each other for sure but I am not convinced it is split along gender lines.

    And if it was I would still argue that is socialisation more than inherent differences.

  16. Even if there were group differences, that doesn't mean there need be a huge split, just that there might be something that might be discernable.

    It could certainly be the case that there are a very few ways of thinking or expressing thoughts that have come to be thought of as typically male or female, and they're the ones that get noticed way out of proportion to their occurrence or importance – the great many ways that people are similar may easily pass unnoticed. Having a few stereotypes that a possibly small number of each group plays up to can certainly help give the impression of greater overall differences.

    On the nature/nurture side, for a start there's a huge blurring in that if there are any innate differences of preference for one way of thinking/acting over another, they can be greatly magnified by the environment.

    Secondly, when it comes to some particular point in someone's life where they're competing for the chance to do something and someone else is selecting people on the basis of apparent ability, the selector is probably not interested in what the inherent potential of people was thought to have been when they were born, just what they can do now (or can be expected to do over the future period of interest).

    As far as I can see, there are times when it can be positive/useful for someone to believe there are no innate group differences, whether or not it's true, and maybe even if it's suspected or known that it isn't (such as when being involved in selection), and times when it can be positive for people not to have an opinion that can't be reliably backed up (such as when being involved in analysing outcomes for fairness)

  17. I study physics which is a field definitely dominated by males. I have some (less then 15%) female classmates, but have never heard them complaining about sexist bias. In fact i could find some slight sexism, namely some male chauvinistic jokes. But actually even my mother used to say more offending statements on women (she explains that, it is due to the fact she have to work in an only female environment (more than 90% women)). So this time I have to disagree with most of you: sexist bias may have some impact on male/female rate in physics but I do not think it is enough to explain the very significant difference.

    @ SteveT

    “concur with sparks about the problem of getting women into higher level degrees. The situation seems to be getting better over time, but the rate of progress is still unacceptably low.” Well, I really do not think we should have a target gender rate. Such a target would be PC bullshit. What we need is equal opportunities and no bias. Having a gender rate target is purely sexism and bias.

    I would like to add short summary of the opinion/work of Helena Cronin who is a philosopher at London School of Economics.

  18. Didn't mean to come off sounding like I support some kind of quota system for women in physics. I agree with you, nador, that any kind of fixed rate of increase for women in higher level physics degrees would be the wrong approach. For one thing, it would be demeaning to the women who are already in the field. However, the fact remains that women are currently woefully underrepresented in upper level physics, and I'm not convinced that trying to create some kind of mythical bias-free environment where people rise to the top based solely on the quality of their work is the right approach either. I've never come close to experiencing such an environment in real life, and I'm not sure it's possible for such a thing to exist.

    In my experience, there is a certain amount of testosterone-laden, aggressive posturing that takes place in physics when it comes time to express ideas/theories. In general, this seems to be a trait/ability that is more common to men than to women. It has always been my opinion that this paradigm is as likely an explanation for the gender disparity as anything else.

  19. I agree that it is impossible to create an absolutely bias free environment, what is more: it is really diffucult to tell what cause a specific gender rate (it can be different preferences, abilties, social and cultural effects, bias etc.). So I'd like to emphasise that one should be careful when blaming discrimination/bias.

    There is another interesting point: there is a huge difference in gender rates between "soft and hard" science. Although both used to be dominated by man, some social science faculties are really full of women these days. So either the professors, leaders/heads (whatever the leader of a faculty is called in English) at such faculties were less male chauvinistic or the main reason is not gender bias.

    Steve, you mentioned a testosterone-laden aggressive posturing. Well, I am not sure i understand well what you meant. I always thought that theories in (physics), mathematics are either true or false (i know that there are statements that are true but can not be proven whitin a set of axioms that are at least as elaborate as containing natural numbers….). So even if one can more aggressively argue on behalf of his/her theory, it is just a question of time to be disproved if false….. Besides physics students are usually not aggressive. E.g. engineers, economists especially MBA-s are more aggressive and self-confident (at least that's my experience). If you mean, that there is a kind of "i am cleverer than you" competition among some physicists, that is true. But i think people do compete in every field, why would physics be an exception.

  20. I think, too, part of the problem is that the expectations of the rigors of a scientific career don't mesh well with motherhood. This gets into the whole issue of gender-based assumptions about parenthood, how our society supports women workers, etc. etc. I am not a scientist, but my husband is, and I watched a lot of the women around him drop out of PhD programs in the sciences to pursue other types of degrees, though for many different reasons. There are good minds looking at this (these guys, for instance) and I personally believe that there are a lot of complex factors. So how's that for not taking a stand? :)

    I guess what I'm saying is that I think in some cases there is overt bias, but in many other cases women simply find that the deck is stacked against them even successfully pursuing a career in the sciences, let alone excelling in that career. And there is a bit of an old-boy network for getting research projects and getting grants at the doctoral and post-doc level (which definitely affects getting published, and therefore advancing one's career).

  21. Having finished my undergrad and masters in Physics I was getting very used to being in an extremely male dominated environment. We did have a few female professors (maybe 20%) and my masters supervisor was female, although my classmates was still 80% male.

    I'm now working on my PhD in a small physics based group in a much more biochemistry based institute and was encouraged to be working with women again. This is a UK institute by the way and we have probably close to 50%, if not more, women here.

    I suspect that much of the cause for this is that we also have a huge proportion of scientists from across europe and I suspect that women moving away from more restrictive environments in foreign labs could be the cause of at least some of this. My labmate used to talk about the trouble she had supervising her lab in Italy which was all male (obviousely excluding her), as were her superiors. My masters supervisor was from Slovenia and worked there at her university department of electronics for half of the year, which she was working on changing as she said her promotion prospects there were close to nil.

    Frankly I never found women to be any worse than men at any element of science, in fact on average I would say they were perhaps better, as there is much more seperation of the "wheat from the chaff" so to speak. Physics enrollment dropped 27% at the degree level over here last year and so I would fervently encourage any man, woman, or any variety of other to persue a career in physics before more universities have to close their physics departments, as my local one had to a year before I was to enrol. Oh, I'm a guy by the way.

  22. Should have mentioned that my perspective is totally from a US/American viewpoint. I have a hunch that there are more women in the sciences in Europe and would be interested to hear more about differences in different parts of the world.

  23. nador said:

    I always thought that theories in (physics), mathematics are either true or false

    Although this is true in the "ideal" world of theoretical physics and mathematics, the situation gets far more muddied when you are talking about experimental physics as done in the "real" world. The real world tends to be a great deal more complicated than the "theory" world, with multiple complex interactions being associated with any phenomenon. Thus, my explanation for a particular thing is always going to be based on my understanding of which interactions are most important and which ones I can ignore. Then I can create some kind of theory to explain my approximation of reality. So when I am trying to convince someone that my theory is the correct one, they have to look at not only my theory, but also the entire set of approximations I have made. Since we often make these approximations based on gut feeling as much as anything else, there's plenty of opportunity for aggressive posturing to take place when we are trying to convince colleagues that we are right. Sometimes we get the luxury of being able to do an actual experiment to confirm or disprove our approximations, but most of the time you just have to make the best guess you can and then move on.

  24. "I think, too, part of the problem is that the expectations of the rigors of a scientific career don’t mesh well with motherhood. This gets into the whole issue of gender-based assumptions about parenthood, how our society supports women workers, etc. etc"

    flygrrl nails it. The institution from which I received my chemistry degree recognized this problem and made a conscious effort to remedy it, an effort which resulted in a near 50/50 science faculty gender split. Incidentally, the gender ratios in all of my science classes were also abnormally even. While this may be a coincidence, I have the sneaking suspicion that the two are related.

    But I don't think this is the "gender quota" in the sense that nador fears – rather, it seems that when you remove obstacles that only women seem to face, and foster an environment in which science is a way of thinking rather than a gendered way of thinking*, the gender ratios take care of themselves. That's what's needed in my opinion. Maybe if peer-review panels adopted this attitude, the problem there would be greatly reduced too.

    *I think the idea that men and women approach/think about science differently is total bunk. I have never experienced such a thing, and I have worked with many men and women in a scientific capacity.

  25. Steve, I knew that my words on the ideal true or false theories might urge someone to clarify what real word is like, but i did not feel like adding even more disclaimers. Yes, i know that in most cases one can not perform all the experiments needed to separate significant and insignificant interactions. My university is a tech. university, thus industry related researches are absolutely not hidden from the students. But the people who do applied physics here usually emphasise that one can not do experimental physics without knowing theoretical. Probably it is the eastern european approach. And well, industry funded research is much easier, the real DIY is "base" research. And i mean do it yourself seriously: for example i have used at least 3 gadgets that had built in coins (yes, money) as some functional elements. (you know, proper funding kills creativity…)

    Kellebell: the chemistry/chemical eng. faculty at my univ. has a gender ratio about 50% as well. But that does not apply to physics, mathematics, electrical eng. and so on.

    I remember an interview with an under-secretary (?) (female) of the ministry of education. The reporter asked if it was necessery to help girls at higher education. She answered, that if we would like to help someone by any means, we should help boys as more than 60% of students are female…. Well, probably it is not the case in the US.

  26. My opinion on the matter is that different people approach science differently, and that the primary dividing line for those approaches does not differ along gender lines. I see the experimental/theoretical/modeling lines as the most prominent.

  27. Well, I am a female and I'm not a real scientist yet, but I'm heading that way. I haven't noticed any real issues yet in my science career, but that could be largely due to my selected field (biology) and the fact that I'm only now getting into the higher levels of my college education.

    In any case, I think I'll probably face less discrimination as a biologist than say, a chemist or a physicist. It seems like people view biology as a more "womany" science than some of the other fields since it deals with nature and living things and all that. I do notice that the vast majority of my fellow students are female, but the opposite is true for my female friend who's going into engineering.

  28. Nador wrote:

    I remember an interview with an under-secretary (?) (female) of the ministry of education. The reporter asked if it was necessery to help girls at higher education. She answered, that if we would like to help someone by any means, we should help boys as more than 60% of students are female…. Well, probably it is not the case in the US.

    Could (s)he, perhaps have been talking about the graduation rate?

    I have no idea what the drop-out rate is, but it seems possible women in the sciences might be fewer but make up for that with more motivation.

  29. @exarch

    The question mark refered to her position (in English), not to her gender.

    The data refers to undergraduate students. More women are admitted to higher education than men in Hungary (and it has been so for a while). The drop out rate varies among faculties significantly, so an average would not be a suitable indicator. Besides i do not know about any gender specific drop-out rate statistics. (Though there are some data of drop-out rate in specific universities as whole.)

    In my physics "class" the drop-out rate was quite the same for both gender. But this is just a very small set of people thus i would not like to draw any conclusions. Actually there might be about 500 physics students in Hungary at all, that means about 70 women – not a big ensemble to do statistics.

    Generally i would conjecture that women have a lower drop-out rate, but that is just pure guess.

    @ captainzebra

    Biology is popular among women here as well. Even some kind of engineering too: environmental eng., bio-eng., chemical eng., architecture are faculties with slight female majority at my university. At civil eng. the ratio of women is slightly under 50 %. While mechanical and electrical engineering faculties are full of men.

    I guess it is unnecessary to mention that ca. 70% of medical students are women. Univerities at medical field seem to be rather traditional and inflexible, thus i conjecture that is the reason why lecturers there are mostly men (i mean, it is quite funny, that i had almost as many women profs at physics and math. lectures as my brother and my cousin at medical field… but considering the attitude there, i would not be surprised if one could find discrimination easily.)

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