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Female academics combat bias in STEM fields

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

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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