Guest editorial: Where are all the women?

By Anne Mette Frejsel, Ph.D. student, Discovery Center, University of Copenhagen

On women in science and academia

Women in science receive a lot of attention these days in connection with the general debate on gender equality in our society. I was recently faced with the question “How do we get more women in science?” While I do not pretend to know the universal answer to this question, as a female Ph.D. student in science I would like to give my views on the topic.

Why do we need more women in science? The obvious answer seems to be “because they are underrepresented.” However, to me it is not about wanting more women for the mere sake of the political correctness of equality itself, but more about making sure that there are equal possibilities for both genders and that social and academic discouragement and implicit bias do not hinder women from going into science.

Research shows that men, when hiring, tend to subconsciously favor men over women. Surprisingly, this research also shows that women also tend to favor men. While equality for the sake of equality should never be our motivation for wanting more women in science, we certainly must address, and in some way rectify, this imbalance and implicit bias caused by subconscious discrimination. Since this bias is subconscious, changing it would mean a shift in the general view on women pursuing careers in science in our society. Another, more concrete deterrent is employment uncertainty. If you look at the number of Ph.D. students graduating each year and compare it to the number of permanent positions offered, it is clear that some Ph.D.s will never receive tenure. The uncertain years of post-docs and time-limited positions are intimidating at best and discouraging at worst—not only for women but for men as well. It is important to limit the deterrent effects of both implicit bias and career uncertainties, and I believe there are concrete actions we can easily take to promote this change and to encourage young women to go into science.

What can we do about it?

Recently, quotas and reward systems have been implemented at the universities in Denmark to ensure that more women are hired and that some percentage of research teams are female in order to get funding. The problem with such quotas and bonuses for hiring women is that it effectively lowers the value of the person hired. There will always be doubt about whether this person was the best qualified or was chosen only because of her gender. There is enormous pressure on the hired female to prove her worth, in order to eliminate any suspicions about her competence. So even though positive discrimination is a sure way to get more women in academia, it also has a very unpleasant side effect of disempowering potential female candidates. Personally, I would want to be sure that I got a position because I was the most qualified applicant, not ‘just’ because I was a woman.

In my opinion, communications to young women in science (and men, for that matter) should focus on the success stories, the good (female) role models, and the places where things—equality wise—are actually going well. Furthermore, I have some ideas for other non-discriminatory actions that can be implemented:

Mentoring for Ph.D. students (both male and female). The focus should be on pairing female students with female mentors—preferably outside one’s direct field in order to be able to speak freely about concerns and challenges.

  • A tenure-track model, which makes it easy to see the path to a tenured position
  • Information and education of students (both master’s and Ph.D. students) about the career path in science. This would remove prejudice and myths that could stand in the way. Courses, talks, blogging, home pages, cake-and-beer meetings, etc. could be some of the ways to spread the information.
  • Articles in the general media, but also in, e.g., student newspapers, with successful female scientists (focus should be on “successful,” not “female”). This would not only bring to light good role models but also help to shift society’s general view about women in science.
  • Youth mentoring or promotion, where female university students promote science to high school or primary school students. In this way, the wish to pursue science is planted at an early stage, with female role models.

In conclusion, I believe it is possible to get more women in science by addressing two main issues: the subconscious discrimination in the academic system, and the discouragement (for various reasons) of young women. This requires serious efforts to remove the barriers that are keeping women from pursuing an academic career in science. Most important, we need to do this not just for the sake of equality itself but because the benefits to science will be huge.