Due to disparities in the proportions of men versus women who obtain significant career advancement in the sciences, no matter which sector is chosen (educational, research, etc.) it appears that women are lacking the motivation to enter advanced science fields because of a perceived lack of possibility.
This phenomenon, which is what Fox refers to as a “gender gap in participation” (661) and scholars such as Sears, who note the presence of equal opportunity in preparation but not perceived future advancement, is keeping women away from professions. For women, the repellent perception is it might not be worth the sacrifices required to enter into a largely male-dominated field because the paradigms that allowed for gender equality in education do not extend to the professional context. In short, women feel as those they will be undervalued in their scientific careers and are thus considering more viable career options (Sears 171).
In the field of physics, which is one of the most predominantly male-oriented disciplines in the sciences, this is particularly the case. While there may be lip service paid to the idea that more women should enter into serious careers in physics and other mostly-male areas in scientific fields, there is little evidence to support the fact that they will enjoy the same opportunities and recognition of achievement as their male counterparts do.
Viewed as a whole, women are not promoted or allowed advanced at rates even remotely close to those of men in the same areas with similar qualifications, experiences, and achievements (Olsen 347). Furthermore, employment-based disparities such as the opportunity for advancement are not the only hindrances many women expect themselves to face at some point in their career in the sciences. Other issues, such as lower salaries more generally (which will be addressed later) and a lessened ability to secure equal funding for research projects are matters for exploration.
One scholar notes that “science is a strategic site for the study of gender because it reflects and reinforces gender stratification” (Fox 655). Due to the historical connections of scientific inquiry in all of its forms, from mathematics to engineering and beyond, sciences are seen as a distinctly male-guided pursuit. Based on our knowledge of human history, when we consider scientific, technological, and empirically-based modes of inquiry, we are far too likely to associate only males with the greatest achievements in history.
This is not the case because there were no women in the sciences, and it was certainly not the case because women were not inclined to participate (through intellect or desire) but rather, it was because the lines of gender were so deeply entrenched that it was not feasible to see women as fit for a life of scientific inquiry. While there are exceptions in Western history, such as Marie Curie, for instance, she stands out in the minds of many of a historical woman scientist of note without much competition. It is, in fact, quite hard to conjure the name of even 5 famous female figures in the history of the sciences and, at the rate our educational and professional scientific sector is going, this is not likely to change without a concentrated continued effort. This pattern of women going unrecognized in the field of sciences is likely to continue, especially as current practices and realities limit women’s alternatives, possibilities and consequently, their desire to enter or remain in the sciences as a field.
One problem with the unequal balance of men and women in the sciences begins within the context of higher education. While women are granted educational access and opportunities that are equal to those of men, at least as far as surface open-gender invitations are concerned, there is a definitive lack of women in the sciences. Of equal importance is the fact that where there are women in the professional scientific sector, they are often not valued to the same extent or in the same contexts as their male counterparts. While 53% of all women in the sciences at the doctoral level are in the educational sector, only 45 percent of men take this route (Fox 655). However, despite this moderate disparity in the genders, “in mathematical, environmental sciences, as well as engineering—women were just 6 percent of full professors as of 1995” (Fox 656). This is a striking example of the kinds of gender inequity present for women in these male-dominated fields and what is worse is that this sends a negative message to potential female undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences. Chances are, these women already know that they will face challenges being the minority gender in their field. Still, if they look around and see only a few female full professors out of the mostly female faculty choices and a strong emphasis on men only, the full effect of institutional gender bias will be clear and they will witness gendered limitations before they have even begun their own careers.
Higher education in the physical sciences is presenting its students with a tangible paradox; on the one hand it is presenting full, equal opportunities for all students regardless of gender, yet on the other hand, it is showing by example that even with equal attainment of educational goals, women’s achievements are less valued—even in the institutions that claim to nurture their development. Another study that examines the context of women in academia notes that in terms of academic leadership, there are several female department chairs across universities in the United States, although the majority of these women (56.8%) are in the arts and humanities (Neimeier and Gonzales 160). Of particular note in this same study, is that the fact that female chairs in the “mathematical and physical sciences and engineering accounted for 5.7% of AAU female department chairs” (160). While the study notes even greater gaps in academic leadership in business and architecture fields, this is important because it symbolizes the lack of inequity and possibility for advancement for females in the sciences. Just as the young female students mentioned above will look for women mentors in the sciences among their current full professors and find a notable lack thereof, it is even more likely the case that women students will not see any full academic leadership on the part of women in the sciences in their undergraduate, graduate, or advanced academic careers.
In an experimental effort, the University of Michigan increased its ranks of female faculty in the physical sciences over 40% and saw a corresponding increase in the number of female undergraduates entering into the program (Stewart et al. 373). What this action signifies is that there could be a strong link between demonstrated abilities for women to move up through the ranks in their male-dominated spheres of the science and new recruitment of women. With the abysmal numbers relating to the current state of male-female ratios in both professorships and leadership positions (department chair status) a large part of the problem could be easily remedied by simply granting access to more women in more positions of leadership authority within their departments. While this is not suggest that programs should place unqualified women in these positions as mere recruitment attractors, it does state that there are plenty of women in the sciences who are just as qualified as their male counterparts, but have yet to realize the same benefits and possibilities of advancements.