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Gender Imbalance in Academic Science


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Science has a gender problem. Although men and women tend to enter science in relatively equal numbers, women are vastly underrepresented at the top of the ladder. To help sort out why, we're joined by our NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who's been looking into the apparent imbalance, especially in academic science. He joins me now to talk about what he's found. Hey, Joe.


MARTIN: So you and I talked about this back in December. At the time, you were recounting all the scientists you had spoken with for your project Joe's Big Idea. And all the examples that you gave me were men.

PALCA: Yeah, it was very odd and it struck me too. And I started to try and look into it and, as you said, it's not a pipeline issue, it seems to be a problem with the pipe. Women are entering science, but they're not passing through as easily.

So I got in touch with a woman named Kelly Ward. She's an education professor at Washington State University in Pullman. And she's been studying this problem and she says, you know, in some cases people - men especially - don't even recognize that it's a problem. They sometimes just give anecdotes that appear to contradict the data.

KELLY WARD: So that we have the individual astrophysicist, who's the highest-paid person at a particular university, and then we say the gender problem is solved or we say, well, if a woman chooses to have a child and goes home, what are we going to do - tell her she can't go home?

MARTIN: OK, so why don't you step back and explain what exactly the steps are to make it up the career ladder in academic science.

PALCA: Well, the first step is just to get a Ph.D. Now, once upon a time, you might go from Ph.D. then go start a junior faculty position, but that's not the way Kelly Ward says science works anymore.

WARD: So you get your Ph.D., decided am I going to get a post-doctorate job? And if you take a job then it sort of takes you out of the academic ladder.

PALCA: Right. And she means a job in industry there. But then there's another decision - is if you want to stay in academia, whether you go to a community college or a research university?

WARD: If you opt for the commuter college, most people don't ever end up back at a research university. So then you decide, OK, am I going to go into industry or am I going to go into an academic tenure track job. And then if you go into industry - I mean, there are examples of people crossing back over, but typically, as soon as you make that decision away from the academic pipeline, people don't tend to opt back in. So you might still be in science and people are still having an impact, but it's not academic science.

MARTIN: But there are clearly some women who make it up all those rungs of the ladder, right? What's their experience like?

PALCA: Well, it's certainly true there are women at the top, but Kelly Ward says once you get there, something interesting happens.

WARD: Once women get in to the highest echelons of chemistry and of engineering, they actually fair really well. They don't tend to drop out, but it's getting in. So we have - the fields where there's the fewest number of women is also where a lot of times women have the greatest level of success.

MARTIN: OK, Joe, why don't they get in?

PALCA: They don't get in for a variety of structural reasons. Sometimes they don't get in because they say I don't want to get into the kind of time commitment and pressure. The time when you're supposed to be starting your career is the same time that your biological clock is ticking and so some women opt out for that. Some women aren't interested in crashing into what has been traditionally a male-dominated world. And so there are various structural and social things that are tending to act against women making it harder for them to take up a profession in the sciences.

MARTIN: Do the sciences differ from the rest of academia?

PALCA: Well, yes and no. I mean, there are the same problems, but because science has been so male-dominated and because it's one of those jobs where they say you have to marry it, it has to be the most important thing in your life - it tends to be a bigger problem in the academic sciences than in other academic disciplines.

MARTIN: This is obviously a really complex problem that affects all different facets of society, but how do you see it changing, this gender imbalance, when it comes to science and academic?

PALCA: Well, there's some things that can be done structurally by universities - adjusting the timed clock for when you have to go for various promotions or go for something called tenure, which guarantees you a spot in the university basically for life.

But the other thing that's going to have to happen, it seems to me and from the people I've talked to, is that the women who've had the biggest success in their careers have done so because they have a partner who carries a lot of the load in terms of having a family. And so it's going to be either men who are going to have to share the load or take on more of it. In some cases, that's going to make it possible for women to reach the top.

MARTIN: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks so much, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.