What Male And Female Scientists Say About Women In Science

“Physics is more difficult for girls,” says a male grad student.

Handout / Reuters

Two star clusters photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Astrophysics is one field in which women are underrepresented.

Women are underrepresented in science in general, but the gender gap is bigger in some fields than others: physics, for instance, has a much lower percentage of women than biology. Researchers decided to ask scientists themselves why they thought this was — and male and female scientists turned out to have pretty different ideas.

Sociologist Elaine Ecklund and her coauthors surveyed 3,455 physicists at various levels of their professions, from graduate student to tenured professor, asking them to select which of the following reasons explained the difference: “Women seem to have more natural ability in biology than in physics;” “Women seem to prefer biology more than physics;” “There is a lot more funding support for women in biology than in physics;” “Women are discriminated against more in physics than in biology;” “There are fewer mentors for women in physics than in biology;” or “There is some other reason.” Then they conducted followup interviews with 216 of the scientists, asking them to talk in greater depth about why they thought there were more women in biology than in physics. A sampling of what they said:

Men

“morphological differences and biological differences [make men better at] hardcore math and physics.” — male assistant professor, genetics

“[There are] some brain differences between men and women that explain it.” — male grad student, biology

“On balance [women are] just less interested in math.” — male professor, biology

“Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” — male grad student, physics

“Science has been a male-dominated field for a substantially long period of time, and it’s going to take a while for that shift to change.” — male grad student, biology

“Women have to make a choice [because] the woman ends up being the primary caregiver if they have children.” — male postdoctoral fellow, biology

Women

“I think women … want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. … Maybe there are more women in … biology [because] you can be like ‘Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.’” — postdoctoral fellow, biology

“Physics is more abstract and biology is more concrete. Women are less likely to like abstract things.” — female associate professor, physics

“[A friend of mine] was always told, ‘Oh, you’re not good at math,’ until she found herself getting As in a multivariable calculus class. You know, she was scared of math all through high school.” — female grad student, physics

“Male-dominated departments are really unpleasant for women. […] Men can be huge jerks in those situations.” — female associate professor, biology

“I know a lot of women who are in chemistry and physics who are excellent at what they’re doing, but are often sidelined or ignored by their colleagues because there’s just not very many of them.” — female assistant professor, biology

“It’s not going to be solved until we figure out how to help mothers figure out how to do the career and the kid thing.” — female associate professor, physics

In the survey, women were more likely than men to cite discrimination as a reason there were fewer female physicists than biologists. Women were less likely to say that individual preferences were a factor. In the interviews, other differences emerged. Biologists often said that innate differences played a role, but the way they talked about these differences changed depending on their gender. Women were more likely to talk about women’s desire to connect emotionally with what they were working; men talked about brain differences or women’s (supposed) problems with math.

Ecklund and her coauthors draw a few interesting conclusions from their data. They write that the fact “that few men in either discipline emphasized the present discrimination that women in science may face (and that men in physics hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions) suggests that discrimination is not being adequately addressed in physics departments at top research universities.” And they suggest that if women need to feel connected to their research or to its practical applications, physics departments that want to retain more women might want to emphasize these applications more. It might also be worth teaching male scientists that women don’t innately suck at math, a fact of which female scientists already seem to be aware.

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