Three trouble spots facing women in science—and how we can tackle them

Written by: Leah H. Somerville
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

writing lines on paper
Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by eduardrobert/iStock

Women are pursuing careers in science at rates never seen before, and this growing representation of female voices is truly exciting. Yet we are well aware that the academic community has not solved all the problems facing women.

That's why we're using this column to highlight three challenges that we see as particularly relevant across the sciences—and what we as an academic community can do about them. This is based on a paper June co-authored with more than 50 of her psychology colleagues listing trouble spots that continue to hinder the advancement of women in their field. Our discussion focuses on women, but the problems and solutions likely also apply to other underrepresented groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and scientists with a nonbinary gender identity.

Many of the problems we discuss aren't new—in fact, they've been voiced for decades—but that doesn't mean solutions will elude us. It is only with continued work and awareness that we will progress toward equality.

Trouble spot No. 1: A sense of belonging

Across many fields and career stages of academia, women report a lower sense of belonging compared with their male colleagues, which is problematic because if a young scientist feels that they don't belong, why would they work hard to stick around? Many women also report that they are granted less respect and authority and have to work harder to be successful compared with men.

We've experienced this ourselves. After Leah planned a conference with a fantastic lineup of speakers, she received compliments on how tasty the snacks were—rather than receiving credit for the meeting's substance. And when June was a new mother, intent on continuing to attend meetings for an academic working group she was part of, a male colleague suggested she focus on "changing diapers" instead. Both experiences left us feeling as though our academic work was undervalued, and that others perceived our real talents as lying elsewhere.

The problem of women feeling as though they don't belong isn't easy to fix. But if we can continue to make strides toward increased visibility of women in STEM—for instance, among Nobel Prize recipients—that may help. Research indicates that when women see other women in high-profile positions, it helps them feel a stronger sense of belonging. So it's important for young scientists to observe women as mentors, speakers, and leaders in their field.

To keep an eye on your field, you may want to take a look at the representation of female speakers at departmental seminars and conferences that you attend to see whether it matches the proportion of women in your field more broadly. A website called BiasWatchNeuro tracks those data for neuroscience, and it has nudged conference organizers to be more mindful of gender representation in that field. You can also use this conference diversity distribution tool to calculate how many presenters ought to be women.

Trouble spot No. 2: Women face harassment and bullying

In daily worklife, women encounter unprofessional behavior more often than men. Sexual harassment, in particular, remains a pervasive issue. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a comprehensive report about sexual harassment in STEM, which stated that many female students—20% to 50%, depending on the study—experience sexual harassment directed at them by faculty or staff. Women sometimes also face other forms of harassment and incivility, including treatment that is humiliating or threatening. June experienced academic bullying as a faculty member while undergoing a performance review; this stalled her ability to work, leaving her uncertain about her future in academia.

To eradicate harassment, we must take concrete steps to develop more effective interventions. The NASEM report recommended that institutions be clear and explicit about their intolerance of sexual harassment. Such a message can be communicated through posters, policies, and clear messages from people in positions of power. Institutional leaders should also ensure that they have supportive processes for individuals who experience sexual and gender-based harassment.

We encourage trainees to lobby their institutions for strong messages that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and, when needed, to push for reform of existing policies and resources that are available to those who have experienced harassment. If you witness sexual harassment yourself, we also recommend that you document it and let a trusted mentor or colleague know so that they can help guide you on appropriate next steps at your local institution.

Trouble spot No. 3: Women are compensated less than men

Reports across many disciplines have highlighted that women are paid less than men. This is not a problem that only existed in the past. Earlier this month, Princeton University settled a federal lawsuit agreeing to provide compensation to at least 106 female professors who claimed to have been underpaid relative to their male colleagues.

The reasons women are paid less are undoubtedly complex. On one hand, men tend to occupy more senior (and hence, more lucrative) positions in scientific fields, a disparity that may remit naturally once women occupy more senior positions. On the other hand, the tendency that men earn more public-facing recognition of status—for example, through talk invitations and prizes—could lead to greater compensation and funding. Men are also more likely to initiate negotiations and successfully get what they requested compared with women.

Erasing financial disparities is crucial to promote the equal advancement of women. We encourage faculty members and trainees to pressure their universities to conduct formal, publicly disseminated reviews of their compensation practices. Publicizing compensation openly can shine light on potential disparities and bring them out from the shadows.

In addition, it is important that women have inside knowledge of the ways in which compensation can be negotiated upward. For example, faculty members sometimes secure raises and additional research funds if they receive a job offer from another university and use that as leverage to negotiate a counteroffer from their home university. Women will lose out on those kinds of raises if they lack this kind of inside knowledge.

The road ahead

Now, more than ever, is a critical time to support women. The pandemic has challenged everyone, regardless of their gender, but there are some indications that women have been especially taxed by the pandemic. Many female scientists are struggling to keep up with increased child and family care demands. Female scientists tend to do more household work than male scientists in the best of times, so it's not hard to imagine that women may be disproportionately losing work hours—which could have long-term impacts on their career.

We don't want the academic community to move backward and see women lost from the system because of COVID-19 and other issues. So, we must double down on our efforts to support women and make academia a more welcoming, inclusive place to work. By bringing issues and concerns out of the shadows, we hope that trainees and faculty members alike will take active measures to push back against the trouble spots that continue to challenge women's equality.

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Leah H. Somerville is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.