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Female Scientists Face a Catch-22

Research shows that aspiring female scientists need the help of existing female scientists to succeed.

Female Scientists Face a Catch-22
X-ray of face

The quest to close the gender gap in the sciences faces a daunting catch-22: Potential female scientists need the support of existing female scientists. At every milestone on the educational path–early mathematics, college, research grants, and professional careers–the guiding hand of a fellow woman increases the likelihood of smashing the glass ceiling. Proactive measures are being taken, and preliminary research shows that motivational lectures and classroom restructuring might be effective.

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The downward pressure exerted on female scientists is an ugly, methodical system that can be traced from adulthood as it trickles all the way down to impressionable young girls. Workplace sexism was actually codified into supreme court law in Bradwell v Illinois, when justices upheld the State’s ban on female lawyers, based on the scientifically rock-solid gut feeling that the law of “nature” declared “the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.”

Decades of professional exclusivity left a gap, in the sciences, in the number of women sitting on all-important grant funding committees. Despite the objective veneer of the hard sciences, a new study shows women are far more likely to get funded if another women is on the committee. Sociologist Anne Lincoln contends that female grant solicitations tend to include autobiographical content and use terms such as “cooperative” and “dependable,” rather than words that, unwittingly, appeal to men, like “decisive” and “confident.”

Regardless of the reason, a dearth of successful females contributes to a largely unconscious stereotype among students, who, in turn, give their female teachers lower evaluations. This unfortunate phenomenon was demonstrated in both an experimental lab of professional actors posing as teachers and a large-scale survey of high school students. The upshot of these negative evaluations leaves a gaping hole of female role models to inspire young girls to pursue science.

And, just when we think the research couldn’t get any more depressing, adding female teachers may make girls less likely to be scientists. Female teachers who are visually anxious about their math ability negatively effect the opinions of impressionable young girls. “But by the end of the year, the more anxious teachers were about their own math skills, the more likely their female students–but not the boys–were to agree that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading,” reports the Associated Press. Thus, haphazardly jamming women into positions simply to fill quotas may have unintended consequences.

The situation is not all bleak. Research hints that the solution might be in a more indirect approach. For instance, female medical students were far more likely to take leadership positions in small class discussions if teachers gave a pep talk about the importance of initiative before discussion. “Our findings show that how we instruct our students can strongly influence whether we reinforce or eliminate gender bias in class leadership,” UCLA professor of Physiology Nancy Wayne, said in a UCLA newsletter.

Likewise, in web-based classrooms, where the gender of students is more concealed, women participate more than men. Professors interested in providing an environment where women are not challenged to speak over the more active men might try adding elements of digital communication, such as Twitter, to enhance discussion.

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Ultimately, culture changes at a glacial pace. There is reason to be optimistic: the catch-22 is not inescapable, and is moving, however slowly, in the right direction.

Follow Gregory Ferenstein on Twitter or email him

[Image by Todd Dailey]

About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry.

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