Diversity in Academe 2013

More Gender Diversity Will Mean Better Science

October 29, 2012

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle
As more women choose careers in the sciences, the stakes are higher than ever before. Having women in key decision-making positions in the scientific and technological work force is critical to the future of our society. Successful senior female scientists serve as a prime source of leadership for top academic administrative positions.

A more diverse work force in the science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) fields not only allows women and other members of underrepresented groups to reap the benefits of the relatively high salaries of scientists and engineers. It may also lead to innovations in science and engineering, since people from different backgrounds bring diverse approaches to problem-solving—in the classroom, laboratories, and on the job—that can improve our daily lives.

For example, women, perhaps because of their experience caring for babies and children, have invented technologies useful for child care, such as disposable diapers, folding cribs, and the baby-changing stations found in public bathrooms. Through its gendered-innovations project, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, at Stanford University, seeks to bring attention to the need for changes in both technology and policy to fit the needs of women, such as a different seat-belt design for pregnant women and a requirement that the new design be tested on pregnant women.

Frequently, designing products or technology for the needs of a particular group viewed as the "other" (or the minority) results in a design that is also better for the "norm." For example, the curb cuts designed for wheelchairs also make it easier for people with strollers or suitcases on wheels to cross the street.

During the past three decades, the overall percentage of women receiving degrees in STEM fields has sharply increased in the United States, but the data mask wide variance among fields. Women now earn more bachelor's and master's degrees, over all, than men do. Since 2000, women have also earned more bachelor's degrees in science (including the social sciences and psychology) and engineering than men. In 2010 they earned 50.3 percent of bachelor's degrees in those fields but only 45.5 percent of master's degrees, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, women earned a majority of the doctorates in nonscience and engineering fields in 2010, but only 41.9 percent of those in science and engineering.

Major gender differences occur across the science disciplines. In short, in many of the social sciences and the life sciences, women have reached parity in the percentages of degrees received. In other areas, such as the geosciences, mathematics, and physical sciences, their percentages continue to increase but have not approached parity. By contrast, in engineering and computer sciences, the percentage of women has reached a plateau or dropped during the past decade. Unfortunately, these STEM areas, particularly computer science and engineering, where women earn fewer than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees, represent some of the fastest-growing sectors of the work force in our increasingly technological society.

Academe continues to improve for women, who represent more than 30 percent of STEM faculty at four-year institutions. Although the percentage drops precipitously at elite research institutions, particularly at the rank of full professor (about 10 percent are women), a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences found improving opportunities nationally for women in tenure-track positions at those institutions. Because of Title VII and Title IX, virtually all institutions have articulated policies banning gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Many now have policies that facilitate balancing career and family, during especially crucial life transitions. Although old issues remain with new facets and faces, progress has been made in cultivating female scientists and changing institutional structures.

The importance of women's leadership in science has been especially apparent in such areas as health care: Not until a substantial number of women had entered the professions of biology and medicine were biases from androcentrism exposed. Once the possibility for such bias was discovered, scholars recognized the potential for distortion on a variety of levels of research and theory, including the choice and definition of problems to be studied, the exclusion of females as experimental subjects, bias in the methodology used to collect and interpret data, and bias in theories and conclusions drawn from the data.

That realization uncovered gender bias that had distorted some medical research. For example, women's health had become synonymous with reproductive health and obstetrics-gynecology, which meant that many diseases that occurred in both sexes, such as cardiovascular disease and even breast cancer, had been studied only in men or with a male-as-norm approach. Excessive focus on male research subjects and definition of cardiovascular diseases as "male" led to underdiagnosis and undertreatment of the disease in women.

Studies demonstrated that women were significantly less likely than men to be treated with coronary angioplasty, angiography, or surgery when admitted to a hospital with a diagnosis of myocardial infarction, unstable or stable angina, chronic ischemic heart disease, or chest pain. This significant difference remained even when controlling for such variables as race, age, economic status, and other chronic disease. Similarly, women had angina before myocardial infarction as frequently as, and with more debilitating effects than, men, and yet women were referred for cardiac catheterization only half as often.

Those studies led the late Bernadine Healy, a cardiologist and the first female director of the National Institutes of Health, to characterize the diagnosis of coronary heart disease in women as "the Yentl syndrome": "Once a woman showed that she was just like a man, by having coronary artery disease or a myocardial infarction, then she was treated as a man should be," she wrote in a 1991 article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The male-as-norm approach in research and diagnosis, unsurprisingly, was translated into bias in treatments for women. Women exhibited higher death rates from angioplasty and coronary bypass surgery because the techniques had been pioneered using male subjects. This provides an important lesson that can be applied to other fields, as increased leadership by women could potentially lead to new breakthroughs and discoveries.

As President Obama has emphasized, to compete in the global market, the United States needs to increase the percentage of Americans graduating from college over all, and the numbers of scientists and engineers. To achieve this, our scientific work force needs to change from being predominantly white and male to reflect the demographics of the population as a whole. Even more than in basic research, applications for technology and inventions depend upon the experiences and ideas of the designers. More women, as well as more diversity in general, in the STEM work force not only helps to guard against bias but may lead to new ideas that will improve life for all of us.

Sue V. Rosser is provost at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science (New York University Press, 2012) and many other books and articles on women and gender in science.