The world of science is a tough place – especially for women. Although the graduation rates for women and men are almost equal in many academic disciplines, women climb the academic career ladder significantly less than men. The higher you look, the fewer women there are in research institutions and universities. To illustrate: 59 per cent of Bachelor's graduates are female. The figure for doctoral students is still 48 per cent. There is a real drop among professors: Only 26 per cent are female. Finally, only 18 per cent of university directors are women.
Only the military has more sexism
Renowned female scientists see the basis for this in sexism, which plays a very large role in the academic environment. This manifests itself in many ways: through gender-specific prejudices in the recruitment and promotion process, the exclusion from professional networks, the withdrawal of decision-making powers or in negative reactions to female leadership. Nicole Boivin, Susanne Täuber, Ulrike Beisiegel, Ursula Keller and Janet Hering have addressed the topic of sexism in academia in a targeted comment. All co-authors are current or former heads of research groups or even research organisations and have observed sexism and prejudice.
Their paper, which was published a few days ago, is entitled: «Sexism in academia is bad for science and a waste of public funding». In it, they refer to studies, calculations and experiences to show the serious consequences that the prevailing system in academia has not only for women, but also for society. Their conclusion: sexism leads to an inefficient use of public research funds and hinders development. Some of the most central and at the same time most shocking points made in the paper are:
1. Sexism is bad for research and a waste of taxpayers' money.
2. Sexism in research is only surpassed by sexism in the military.
3. The toxic work environment is the main reason why women leave research.
4. The misogynistic work environment in research - including sexual harassment and bias - leads to the loss of female scientists.
5. The loss, abuse and sabotage of female researchers is an irresponsible waste of public funds and hinders progress.
6. The loss of female talent is a significant problem in science (the so-called leaky pipeline)
7. Research data shows that female scientists in the STEM fields - mathematics, computer science, natural sciences, technology - are twice as likely to leave research as men.
8. Black women are disproportionately affected by this discrimination.
9. Sexism imposes high costs that cannot be ignored.
One of the authors is physicist and ETH professor Ursula Keller. She was honoured with the Marcel Benoist Science Prize in 2022 for herwork on ultrafast laser physics. The prize is considered as the Swiss Nobel Prize. Ursula Keller has written an article related to this recent publication for ellexx. In this piece, she discusses how 'male privilege' and 'restricted access to power, resources, and recognition' create an unfair and toxic workplace environment for women moving up in leadership positions. Keller also proposes strategies for science and its institutions to enhance equity and opportunity for women in STEM fields.
Addressing Access to Power, Resources, Recognition and Privilege in STEM Leadership
My observations on the increasing hostility towards women in STEM leadership roles have been met with skepticism by some peers. While acknowledging progress and the competitive nature of senior positions, I question whether this competition is truly gender-neutral.
As a female physicist, my career path has been within a male-dominated arena. I very much appreciate the explanation by Meryl Streep about speaking «men» fluently. I have learned to navigate this space successfully, informed by exceptional experiences at Stanford, Bell Labs, and ultimately as a tenured professor at ETH Zurich. My endeavors led to advances in ultrafast lasers, now integral to precision micromachining in industry for example.
However, this journey has illuminated the prevalence of a double standard. Many supportive male colleagues exhibit discomfort toward their senior-level female counterparts. This bias often goes unrecognized. For instance, the dismissal of a female colleague at ETH in 2019 was defended by some who claimed that they never witnessed discrimination – a stance I find overlooks the subtleties of gender bias.
As a younger scientist, being off the «radar» may have shielded me. Now, more women are ascending the career ladder, drawing attention. Despite the success of gender-specific measures aiding in their promotion, these actions have stirred notions of reverse discrimination amongst some men – though data on the persistent «leaky pipeline» contradicts this. True equality in access to power, resources, and privilege may initially be perceived as reverse discrimination, but it is not.
The accustomed privileges for some are being questioned. Without an understanding of diversity's benefits, resentment surfaces, this creates a hostile work environment for accomplished women leaders. Recognizing this as a power struggle is vital for addressing the issue. Informal power networks resist relinquishing privilege, yet they are a disservice to scientific excellence.
Addressing male privilege, as scholars like Pat O. Connor highlight, is crucial. Connor notes that men's disproportionate presence in senior roles is not justifiable by age or research output across various countries. He points out the concept of 'gendered privileging' in male-dominated organizations, which adversely impacts women. Furthermore, a comprehensive article argues that 'system-supporting inaction' and the resulting intergroup dynamics are key strategies used by dominant groups to impede change and maintain their power.
Improved governance, marked by transparency and accountability, can diminish the sway of these informal power groups. Such reforms will not only yield better outcomes for all but will also alleviate the toxic atmosphere for women and enhance diversity within STEM fields. It is challenging for anyone to relinquish privileges. I am convinced that a deeper understanding would indeed provide relief for excellent scientists.
An effective strategy for promoting better governance is to link funding to these necessary changes. Several funding agencies have taken the lead in promoting transparency and good governance. One example is the Juno program in the U.K. Furthermore, professionalization of management functions could allow professors to focus on their core missions of education and research. Excellence in management is needed but cannot be assumed based on excellence in research.
So what does it take to change the structures in science and improve them for women? Let me make a few suggestions:
- Academia is a complex environment, which can feature both top-down and upward bullying. The dynamic of bullying transcends traditional power hierarchies and is frequently rooted in stereotypical biases, particularly gender biased expectations that women should be more supportive and caring than men. To address this, we need clear, realistic performance criteria, particularly regarding supervision.
- A consortium of stakeholders – including those directly impacted, critical voices, specialists, and administrators – should be enlisted and empowered. Institutional leaders must take up recommendations to effect tangible change.
- Existing grievance procedures are compromised by conflicts of interest, or even the perception thereof. Grievance processes must be conducted independently and without the participation of colleagues with close professional ties to involved parties. Only then can grievance procedures command the trust of the academic community.
- We should establish clear criteria for excellence. Without these, we risk defaulting to subjective judgments or 'gut feelings,' which often perpetuate the status quo and hinder diversity.
- Moreover, institutions should not use strict 'data privacy' standards as a pretext to evade addressing systemic issues. As the 1999 MIT report highlights, proving discrimination in individual cases is challenging. Therefore, it is crucial that institutions disclose information on how others at similar career stages have been treated.
Implementing these changes will significantly enhance our productivity and quality in scientific endeavors and, undoubtedly, increase the enjoyment of our work. We also benefit from more women helping to address our future challenges. We need the best from all of us to solve these problems. A good example is Katalin Kariko’s joint win of this year’s Nobel Prize. Her world-changing science almost did not happen. Because she faced lack of funding and recognition, demotion and was ultimately pushed out of her university. Let’s act before we keep losing more talents and the world keeps missing out on more potentially transformative discoveries.