Getting more women into science

Published in The Hindu on March 7, 2013

The results of a simple but telling experiment published last year revealed beyond doubt the existence of bias and discrimination against women in science. The experiment, carried out by Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S. revealed that women scientists are no better than their male counterparts when it comes to bias against women.

Dr. Handelsman sent out resumes of fictitious students to 100 scientists. The resumes had either John or Jennifer as the name; every other information was identical. Yet, on average, “John” was offered higher salary than “Jennifer,” and “Jennifer” was also rated as being less competent than “John!”

In a Comment piece — “Most of us are biased” — published today (March 7) in Nature , Dr. Jennifer Raymond, of Stanford University School of Medicine, California, openly admits she is biased against women. “My performance on the Implicit Association test, revealed that I have a tendency to associate men with science and career, and women with liberal arts and family,” she confesses.

But in the same vein she emphatically states: “[I am] not proud of my unconscious bias against women in science…but I must first recognize my own bias to overcome it.”

According to her, results from hundreds of thousands of people from 34 countries reveal that 70 per cent of men and women tend to think “science as more male than female.” But gender bias is not restricted to science alone, Dr. Handelsman.

So how does one address the problem and correct the imbalance?

Immediate eradication of “unconscious” bias is difficult to achieve, she notes. So her solution is to “suppress its symptoms.” “If we are vigilant, we can reduce the influence of bias on our decisions,” Dr. Raymond states optimistically. It is only by increasing the number of women in science, despite the bias, can the prejudice against them be rooted out.

Europe has gone a long way in practising what Dr. Raymond suggests in her piece. But it is yet to achieve the best results and there are areas of concern like fewer number of women in decision-making positions, number of women scientists (38 per cent in 2007), and percentage of full professors (19 per cent in 2007).

It is to correct this “persistent gender gap” that Europe has been adopting several novel strategies. The root of the problem lies in way the system works in higher-education institutions.

So Europe has trained its guns to correct it, notes another Comment piece by Dr. Brigitte Muhlenbruch, and Dr. Maren Jochimsen.

Dr. Muhlenbruch is the president of the European Platform of Women Scientists, Brussels and Dr. Jochimsen is from the Essen College of Gender Studies, Essen.

Changes like “increasing diversity, introducing promotion and retention policies, updating research-assessment standards, allowing women to return to work after career breaks” and having courses that are attractive to both genders are some of the policies introduced.

In 2011, the European Research Council came out with a gender-equality plan, wherein attaining gender equality at every stage is a priority. The same year, the European Science Foundation recommended that member organisations “attain a gender ratio of at least 40 per cent among grant reviewers,” they note.

But it is Germany that takes the cake in initiating several steps to narrow the gender gap and initiate women-friendly policies. Consider this for novelty and success — the Programme for Women Professors launched in 2007 “funds universities for appointing women to the rank of full tenured professors.” More than 260 women professors have been appointed in 109 universities.

In 2008, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the country’s largest funding body, came out with a policy to “make gender equality integral” with several issues. That institutions need to publish data on gender equality at all levels reflects the importance given by DFG to reduce the gender gap.

For instance, every DFG member institution is required to have “flexible working schedules, and child-care facilities and other family services.”