How to increase women in science careers

Argonne National Laboratory's "Science Careers in Search of Women" demonstrates why a career in science might be right for them. (Credit: George Joch)

Argonne National Laboratory’s “Science Careers in Search of Women” demonstrates why a career in science might be right for them. (Credit: George Joch)

Over the past 40 years, the number of women earning advanced degrees in the fields of science has quadrupled. Despite these gains, many in the academic world and beyond are still very concerned about how to increase the number of women in science careers. So why are women not sticking with science careers, and how can they be encouraged to continue on a scientific employment path after completing their education? And does it matter if the sciences aren’t diverse?

Trends and barriers

The most recent data indicates that women are earning more bachelor’s and master’s degrees, across all areas of study, in the United States. In the social and life sciences, figures now show that women are represented in equal numbers as men, and in the areas of physical science and math, the numbers of women are rising, but not yet equal. However, according to a May/June 2009 Academe article, “Why Are We Still Worried about Women in Science?” by Sue V. Rosser and Mark Zachary, “In engineering and computer sciences – the fastest-growing STEM fields with the greatest workforce demand – the percentages of women have reached a plateau or dropped over the past decade.”

Rosser and Zachary cite obstacles such as an inability to balance a science career with having a family and a lack of professional networks for female scientists. In 2004, Rosser conducted a survey that found “among 450 female scientists and engineers employed at research universities, more than 70 percent cited the need to balance career and family as the most significant challenge facing their professional advancement.”

Does diversity even matter? Or should we simply accept that more men will be able to manage work and family in the field of science? In the corporate world, much research has shown that diversity fuels innovation, and innovation is essential in the sciences. So maybe we shouldn’t yet give up on increasing the number of women in science careers.

Increasing diversity

The research has shown that women may be earning more degrees than ever, but they aren’t lingering in science careers. Steve Haruch wrote for on January 2, 2014, “A Graduate Program Works to Diversify the Science World,” about a program Vanderbilt University and Fisk University are collaborating on to resolve that problem. They found that prospective students were being filtered out based on GRE scores, which are not really indicative of success or failure in an advanced science degree program.

Starting in 2004, the two universities began looking at other metrics. They accepted 68 students that year, “55 of whom came from underrepresented minority backgrounds (namely African-American, Hispanic and Native American) and 46 percent of the students have been women,” reports Haruch. Of that group, the universities had a retention rate of more than 90 percent. And for those who completed the program all the way through to the Ph.D. level, there has been a job placement rate of 100 percent.

Fisk and Vanderbilt may have solved the issue of women earning science degrees, but what about keeping women in science careers?

Increasing women’s presence

It turns out that the solution may be as simple as women seeing other women in science fields and situations. Nick DeSantis wrote on January 7, 2014 for The Chronicle of Higher Education,Including Women on Meeting Teams May Help Careers of Female Scientists,” that highlighted a study that found when a single woman was included on a science-related symposium’s organizing team, the average proportion of female speakers rose from 25 percent to 43 percent.

Additionally, the study found that just a lone woman on the planning committee decreased the odds that all of an event’s speakers would be men. So universities looking for how to increase the numbers of women in science careers might want to start simply by including a female in their planning for science-related events.

Want to learn more about scientists and inventors? Check out Questia—particularly the section on women in science

What do you think? Would the scientific world be better off if there was more diversity among its members? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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