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Female academics combat bias in STEM fields

Faculty, grad students cite microaggressions, underestimation of ability as obstacles to success

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
This article is part of the series The XX Factor

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the history and current state of women’s role in STEM education.

While the gender gap in academia is often most salient at the student level, equally apparent disparities among graduate students and faculty members are often overlooked. These members of the academic community are further along the “leaky pipeline” — a term that describes the incrementally rising attrition rate of women at each rungup the academic ladder. Only 33 percent of University faculty members are female, an imbalance even more stark in the physical sciences, where women make up 15 percent of faculty.

This trend holds true nationwide. In the geosciences, women make up 42 percent of University bachelor’s degree recipients, 45 percent of master of science recipients and 39 percent of PhD recipients. But only 26 percent of assistant professors, 14 percent of tenured assistant professors and 8 percent of full professors are women.

One study found that nearly half of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines seriously considered leaving the geosciences during their careers, while only one-third of men did. Reasons for leaving were also divided along gender lines. Women cited family issues and problems with advisers as their top reasons for leaving, while men considered leaving because of an uncertain job market or difficult classes.

Bias against women in STEM

Several female scientists interviewed said they often face microagressions — unintended discriminatory acts due to inherent biases — driven by their gender.

“A lot of people are biased. … We implicitly think we are fair, but we are not,” said Bjorn Sandstede, professor and chair of the Department of Applied Mathematics. This bias is sometime blatant. For example, when professors ask for suggestions for workshop speakers, people will only say male names — it is only when professors specifically ask for female speakers that people name women, he said.

In a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 127 science faculty members from research universities were asked to rate the application materials of a hypothetical student — who was randomly assigned either a male or a female name — for a laboratory manager position. The researchers found that the faculty rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and more likely to be hired than the female applicant with an identical application. The male applicants were also offered a higher starting salary and more mentoring than the female applicants.

Some female faculty members said they have had academic experiences that made them feel isolated from their predominantly male counterparts.

Professor of Computer Science Anna Lysyanskaya said during graduate school she shared an office with a male classmate named Danny. Lysyanskaya said whenever she picked up the phone for Danny, people would assume she was a secretary rather than an officemate. She said she had to explain that she was not responsible for finding Danny or transcribing detailed messages for him. “If I were a man, I don’t think I would have to explain that. … It isn’t so much discrimination as constantly having to assert yourself,” she said. “These things really add up, and it kind of gets on your nerves.”

During her time as an undergraduate in India, Esha Ghosh GS, who is studying computer science, said many of her male classmates had condescending attitudes toward women. She said they did not think women could be successful in STEM fields, but this drove her to perform well and prove them wrong.

Even now Ghosh said she faces an implicit bias when collaborating with male colleagues. “When a woman says something, there’s a tendency to brush it aside, even though it’s correct. I had this issue with my collaborators where I had suggested something, but because I was saying it much more calmly, people would brush it aside. Eventually they would come back to the idea because it was a good idea.”

“All of these microaggressions and everyday issues feed into the idea that this is not a woman’s field,” Ghosh said.

Many of the professors interviewed mentioned that they are usually treated with respect when working with those in their subdiscipline who know their work but often face problems outside of that circle.

“There were a lot of problems going to conferences,” said Vesna Mitrovic, associate professor of physics. “People would flirt with you, and if you don’t go with them, then they say all sorts of things behind your back. They hold grudges against you,” she said.

Mitrovic said she recently gave a talk after which a male audience member, unfamiliar with her field, offered rude criticism.

As a woman in STEM, “it’s harder, but you just have to be careful and be around the right people.”

The confidence gap

For women starting out in STEM fields, it can be intimidating to be the only woman in the room, Lysyanskaya said, adding that not seeing others like themselves can make women feel different and uncomfortable.

“When you’re in the minority, you’re less likely to take risks or speak up,” said Provost Vicki Colvin, who was previously a professor of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University.

Sara Maloni, assistant professor of mathematics, said a number of female students have approached her to tell her they feel uncomfortable being the only woman in her class. She tries to console them by telling them about her own experience, she said.

Women tend to be harder on themselves, Maloni said. “When women drop a class, they have a B average, whereas when men drop a class, they are often failing,” Maloni said. Because they are self-selecting, women who end up staying in the field tend to be better students than the average male, Lysyanskaya said.

On average, “when a woman comes up with an idea, they are a little less confident. We think a lot before we say something and make sure that it makes sense. And men don’t always do that,” Ghosh said.

Cultural and social norms

Many professors interviewed cited cultural norms — such as expecting women to be the homemaker and the caretaker — as some of the reasons for the low numbers of women in STEM.

“A simple thing such as expectation over gender roles has changed substantially in the past three decades,” said James Valles, professor of physics and chair of the department. “The working professional PhD woman is not an anomaly now. It’s much more common, … as are two breadwinner families.”

“There’s this assumption that the woman is supposed to be the one taking a break from her career and not the man. Why should that be the case?” Lysyanskaya said. “Men have a life, too. Men have families, too, and they should also have their work-life balances. They shouldn’t be workhorses. The whole idea that work-life balance is a woman’s issue is really bizarre and makes no sense. The countries that are really progressive on this issue have not only maternal leave for mothers but also paternity leave for fathers,” she said.

Mitrovic said one female graduate student approached her because she was upset by her mother’s disapproval of her choice to attend graduate school. The student’s mother expected her to get married and settle down and threatened to cut off communication after she chose to pursue graduate studies instead, Mitrovic said.

“I couldn’t believe her story,” she said, adding that it was appalling to think a mother would disapprove of her daughter’s decision to go to graduate school.

Mitrovic recommended that the student read a relevant book and value her independence. “She was never bothered by her mother’s thoughts again,” Mitrovic said.

The student went on to finish her PhD and work as a postdoctoral fellow in a large lab in Germany, Mitrovic added.

Balancing act

The biggest issue women face is finding a work-life balance, Colvin said.

“We’re a society of overachievers,” Lysyanskaya said. Society believes that women “have to do an amazing job with our career, with our kids and maintain a beautiful home. … We want to do a good job in every single thing, and it’s not easy.”

Those entering academic careers often need to move around many different institutions before finding a permanent position, sometimes making it difficult for women who also want to start a family, Maloni said.

“A career in academia is seen as a demanding job,” Colvin said.

Brown offers faculty members benefits, such as six weeks of fully paid leave after the birth of a child, according to the University’s administrative policies. But not all faculty members take use of this leave.

“After my first child, I went back to work after 10 days because of the pressure, even though I technically had parental leave,” said Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain.

“There’s a misconception that unless I’m 100 percent in, I can’t stay in a STEM field,” said Professor of Engineering Iris Bahar.

But much of this pressure is self-imposed, and academia can actually offer much more flexibility than a job in industry, Colvin said. Industry requires people to work rigid hours, whereas an academic has much more flexibility on when and where they work, she added.

“I have more flexibility in this job than any other job I could think of,” said Stefanie Tellex, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

Many of the women interviewed agreed that having a female mentor was important in showing them that they could balance an academic career with life outside of work.

Tellex said when she started her career, she was unsure if she could achieve this balance. But when her postdoctoral adviser introduced her to female role models in the field, she realized she did not have to work crazy hours.

“Because we are so few in number, it is really important to have a role model and mentor,” Narain said. “My thesis adviser was a woman, and she showed me how to be professional but also have a life,” she said.

Another mentor of hers not only gave her professional advice but also “showed me the best strategies for teaching, and as an assistant professor and a female, how to best project yourself,” she said. Narain still keeps in touch with her mentors and reaches out to them whenever she has a question, “personal or professional.”

University initiatives

The University has adopted policies and programs aimed at increasing the number of female and underrepresented minority faculty members through the Target of Opportunity program.

“This program identifies women and underrepresented minorities and allows us to take a variety of measures to hire these groups,” Colvin said.

The administration also works with individual departments to make it easier for them to hire women in STEM disciplines. They do this by allowing hiring off-season and even creating new positions for talented female candidates.

“We normally have a search season to find new faculty, but there could be a small pool during this time, and there may not a good balance of women in the pool,” Valles said. If an impressive female candidate becomes available mid-year, a department may be able to hire her if the University reacts quickly and creates a position for her. If other departments are also seeking to enhance diversity, then the competition can be fierce, so it is very important to be nimble, he said.

The University also offers a program called Back-Up Care, in which faculty members can call and have a child caretaker sent to their home, Lysyanskaya said.

Several professors interviewed said guidelines for family-friendly policies were brought up at a recent faculty meeting. One of the guidelines suggested was that no meetings should be held after 5:30 p.m. in order to respect the work-life balance of faculty with family obligations.


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  1. Off course, this article is written by a woman, and the linked article above is written by a man. Typical.

  2. I find these kinds of articles completely ridiculous. Most of the women I talk to aren’t interested in STEM disciplines and it has nothing to do with being a woman, feeling they are incapable of succeeding because they’re a woman, or anything of that nature. They simply aren’t interested. As far as the concerns of current female faculty members go – I am interested in hearing about real concerns and issues they face until I hear a story about a woman complaining that people thought she was a secretary when she would pick up the phone. Give me a break. People think that because the vast majority of secretaries are women, and unless her male colleague disclosed the fact that he was sharing that line, why would anybody think she wasn’t a secretary? More importantly, why do you even care what people think? As far as India goes – YES, I totally believe they have discriminatory attitudes towards women in India. I would imagine that they face discrimination in many other fields as well.

  3. Women need more special treatment. MORE!
    But they’re equal. EQUAL!

  4. The Editors of BDH were unable/unwilling to publish this, so I publish it here…John Lonergan

    A gift of $100 million a year to

    We would like to
    give $100 million per year to Brown. This money could be used to offset tuition
    fees, pay professors more, and support Brown’s current budget, which is in
    deficit. We have proposed this to
    Christina Paxson and several leaders within Brown’s administration.

    We in Northern
    California have created a plan to significantly increase Brown’s
    revenues. We are students from
    before birth, and remain students until we die. Those who are fortunate
    enough to attend Brown bring their own experiences and relationships with them.
    Our proposal outlines how Brown can participate in the learning process
    for high school students, with a goal of exposing students to Brown professors
    and students, developing and reinforcing a Brown-student relationship well
    before the admissions process begins.

    The key benefits to
    Brown are:

    1. Brown can
    add $100 million in revenues by teaching AP courses.

    2. This program would
    benefit both high-income and low-income high school students, as well as local
    teachers, Brown professors and Brown students (as paid

    3. This gives you Brown
    to increase student acceptance
    rate (now at 60%) and improve the number of high-potential poor
    students (a key target).

    proposal outlines a plan for Brown to offer AP courses in select schools,
    starting with Northern California. These
    courses would be co-taught by the local AP teacher and Brown professor,
    assisted by Brown students acting as proctors.
    The goals of the program are:

    1. To offer the students a compelling, interesting and
    informative set of courses.

    2. To expose promising high school students to Brown professors
    and students.

    3. To give Brown visibility on promising students who may
    become good candidates to attend Brown.

    4. To support schools which may need
    teaching resources in inner-city and poorer school districts, and support their
    local efforts.

    fundamental principles of this program are that (1) it must be financially
    self-supporting, (2) it offers a first-class educational experience that is
    rewarding for Brown students and professors as well as students, and (3) that
    it works in concert with local resources, with full backing of the high

    is offered

    The educational product would consist of the following:

    A set of internet lectures using
    the Khan Academy format on AP subjects, given by a professor at Brown.
    These lectures are normally watched by the students online at home
    (as homework).

    A set of exercises and questions
    which are answered by the students during class time.

    A teaching guide for the local AP
    teacher. The teacher uses this guide and assists students in class
    to answer questions and do exercises.

    Tests to be proctored by the local
    AP teacher which are submitted for grading to Brown students assisting the
    professor (Brown students are paid for this course assistance). Results
    are then shared with the AP teacher and Brown (for certification).

    If applicable, online textbooks as
    a part of the educational offering.

    will pay?

    those who have the greatest stakes in the education of students: parents,
    teachers, guidance counselors, who are willing and able to pay. “Rich”
    schools’ parents pay for their child’s certificate. Some scholarships
    offered. “Poor” schools parents pay, but with a great deal more
    scholarship assistance.

    are the target markets?

    the world. The “freemium” model can be disseminated on YouTube and used
    by millions. The “certificate” model is also freely expandable (same
    professor, more Brown student proctors).

    much effort is involved?

    A Khan
    Academy format requires very little professor time and effort. With a
    virtual “blackboard” and voiceover, the professor can video a series of
    lectures based on his/her Brown classroom offerings.

    school students in the “certified” program will require support. This
    would be provided by Brown students working at the direction of a Brown
    professor. These students’ main tasks would include grading courses,
    answering teachers’ and students’ questions, and monitoring feedback.


    scholarships administered by Brown in collaboration with local guidance counselors.

    We have shared the
    entire plan, with revenues and costs, with top members of the administration at
    Brown. It is also available for public
    view at http://www.brownnext250years.wordpres...

    • Good lord Lonergan, I know you love to spam but just put a link instead of copy-pasting the whole thing into every article.

  5. “While the gender gap in academia is often most salient at the student level…”

    While true, I suspect it is not salient in the way the author implies. Women receive 57% of all bachelor degrees and 50% of degrees in science & engineering (2008 National Science Foundation data). Among the STEM disciplines women are under-represented in engineering and math and computer science. Men are under-represented in biological and agricultural sciences, psychology, and social sciences.

    The salient gender gap in academia among students is that men are underrepresented and underserved. Annually, 233,000 less men graduate from college than women.

    When will the power of Title IX be used to support the true disadvantaged gender in academia at the student level, men?

  6. ShadrachSmith says:

    STEM courses are hard, and there are no special snowflake paths to success. Women never have, don’t now, and likely will never populate that path. Why doesn’t really matter.

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