Engendering a Balance: Where are all the females?

cover_v2-01by Juliana Ariffin

As a female, I survived through my high school and undergraduate years without facing any gender-associated barriers. Indeed, to my youthful mind, it seemed like our predecessors had done their jobs to bring awareness to and eliminate gender inequality in modern society. However, once I stepped into working life, I realised this inequality wasn’t quite conquered yet.

I remember the exact moment this realisation started to dawn. I had been really excited about starting a research career in science, imagining my climb to the top of the ladder would start now that I had begun my PhD. I was staring at a noticeboard with pictures of all the group leaders in my institute when I realised something interesting – only 1 in 5 were women! ‘Huh?’ It tickled my interest, but did not result in the birth of an indignantly raging feminist within me.

However at the back of my mind, I kept wondering about it. It was really quite strange, considering an equal number or more of my peers are female. How did they drop off the ladder on their way up, and when? Why? From then, I began to notice and read more about the issue – it dawned on me that the presence of women in scientific research and their career progressions was a really interesting and significant problem.

What is the problem?

One way to view the situation is to hypothesise that fewer women participate in scientific research because they are not as interested as men are. Traditionally, women pursue and fill more nurturing roles in society, while men dominate highly competitive, technical, and travel or labour intensive fields. Within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, it is often perceived that females gravitate towards fields that are more human-centered such as the biological sciences, and will avoid math-based or technical subjects like physics and engineering which are traditionally dominated by males.

Scientific research is definitely a field that is intensely competitive and highly technical, requiring solid numerical and statistical skills. It also involves a significant amount of travel and unforgivingly long working hours. So perhaps it is just that fewer women engage in STEM related careers (see Infobox), and those that do, tend to avoid pursuing research.

However if we look at gender parity in the biological sciences where females typically constitute about 50% of PhD students and post-docs who actively conduct research, we would expect to see an equal distribution at higher career stages. However this is not the case. Often as seniority increases, the number of female biologists drops. In the United Kingdom, females constitute only 15% of professors [1], and in the United States, only 21% [2]. Other measures of gender parity such as the proportion of women on biotech scientific advisory boards in biotech companies also reveal a distinct lag in female participation, even when taking into account the proportion of eligible female candidates with similar levels of achievement to male scientists (Figure 1) [3,4]. Clearly the problem lies in sustaining the levels of female researchers and supporting their career growth.

Why should we care?

There are many fields where men consistently outnumber women, such as in the military and construction, where it is unlikely that male to female ratios will ever change. So one might wonder, why should we bother about the under-representation of females at the higher levels of scientific research? After all, research would still get done, wouldn’t it?

Yes, but research would be done differently

Research has shown that teams perform better with diverse members. There are observable differences in problem-solving and communication techniques used between men and women, so if women are out of the equation, we lose diversity in the way we address issues. Also, with fewer women in decision- making positions, we lack a whole gender’s perspective. For example,healthissuesthatafflict women might not be understood or experienced by men, leaving them unaddressed.

Only half the available brainpower and resources would be utilised

If women are not encouraged to pursue research in STEM, we lose out on the brilliant minds of half of our population. Would the discoveries we’ve seen throughout history have ever been made if the females contributing to them lacked the opportunities they had? Even Alan Turing would have taken a little longer to decode Enigma without the help of Joan Clarke!

Waste of highly trained personnel

If women were trained throughout their early careers, but left by the wayside at senior levels to stagnate or abandon their career altogether, it would waste the resources spent to train them. This becomes a significant workforce issue rather than a gender issue.

Figure 1: Proportion of women on biotech scientific advisory boards versus PhD holders in matched sample [4].
Figure 1: Proportion of women on biotech scientific advisory boards versus PhD holders in matched sample [4].

Why is this happening and what can we do?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why gender disparity arises, as there are many contributing factors. However, society and governments are beginning to realise how important it is to address the issue and take steps to promote a balance. Change needs to happen at all levels to address each factor.

1 Accommodate career interruptions

Taking a hiatus from your job is necessary when you are female and want to start a family. However, evaluation of research progress is based on publication records and researchers are under pressure to constantly publish. This means that institutes, funding bodies and individuals involved in the hiring process need to develop performance assessments that account for career hiatuses. Programmes for workforce re-entry for women who have taken a break for childbirth and family obligations should also be introduced in organisations that do not have them yet. As science is a fast-paced field and long absences can be harmful, part-time work could also be made more avail- able and encouraged, to help scientists to keep in touch with science.

2 Provisions for childcare

Scientists who work overseas lack the support of extended family to help with childcare. Given the low salaries in scientific jobs, they may also find the cost of childcare is equivalent to their salaries. In addition, jobs in science are usually short-term and unstable. When faced with high costs of childcare, job instability and the desire to raise their own children, many female scientists might leave their careers to raise their children regardless of how far along they have progressed. Given these facts, childcare services and facilities near the workplace should be made available and affordable. Flexible work hours and additional funding or allowance for scientists with children would also help.

3 Policy changes

Institutes and committees should establish policies to strive towards equal gender presence and participation in staff and on decision-making boards. Committees organising conferences should also ensure female scientists are engaged as speakers and organisers. This is not to say that women should be prioritised for positions no matter what-rather efforts should be made to reach out to and encourage participation of qualified females. Unfortunately, sometimes even when female participation is desired, it can be hard to source female scientists for engagement. There are some efforts to improve this, such as the establishment of Academia.Net, which is a database of high-performing female researchers of all disciplines, established in Germany [5].

4 Awareness of gender biases and discrimination

Almost all individuals have unconscious gender bias or discrimination, stemming from cultural norms and stereotypes. This can be more apparent and problematic in very competitive fields, where men are acceptably competitive, while women are discriminated against if they show too many male attributes (perceived bossiness in females versus assertiveness in males). Work performance in women should be recognised rather than their personality attributes. The choice to start a family should also not be seen as reduced commitment or drive for work, and vice versa.

In fields with male predominance, ‘the boys’ club’ mentality can also result in women being discriminated against, sidelined, or dismissed as irrelevant. Beliefs about women’s nurturing natures and family commitments can also lead to lack of support and recommendations for promotions and places on decision-making boards. These beliefs may even originate from women themselves who have not undergone life experiences or exposure that might help them towards leadership-focused roles [6]. Without pro-active changes, this would result in the plateauing of female researchers’ careers as they reach a glass ceiling.

The Big Picture

Ultimately, the gender balance in STEM subjects might always remain skewed for specific disciplines, hinging on cultural perceptions of male and female roles in various societies. But for scientific research to progress, one thing is for sure – it has to enable women as well as men. After all, a more inclusive, supportive and diverse culture within the scientific research community can only bring about positive changes and benefit all scientists and society in general, regardless of their gender.

INFOBOX | The Sex of Science across the World and in Malaysia

Socio-economic and cultural factors play a role.

In the U.S., computer science is predominated by males, but in Malaysia, the information technology (IT) field has approximately equal gender ratios, possibly due to government support for education in IT. Engineering degrees in Indonesia are almost equally awarded to women and men, although variations exist within subfields reportedly due to work environment preferences [7]. Therefore, socio-economic and cultural factors likely influence choice rather than innate preference or ability.

Gender ratios for interest in science vary across the world.

Interest in math and science, and gender composition in awarded science degrees fluctuate in different countries. Of the countries assessed, Malaysia has the most gender-integrated science programs – 57% of females awarded science degrees exactly matches the percentage of female enrolment in college and university (Figure 2).

Skewed gender ratios can change.

Female participation in engineering, architecture and the sciences has been rising in Malaysia [8]. Therefore, if countries equally encourage men and women while avoiding existing stereotypes, perhaps gender bias will soon be a thing of the past.


Figure 2: Science across the world. (A) Comparison of interest in math and science in developing and advanced countries.
Figure 2: Science across the world. (A) Comparison of interest in math and science in developing and advanced countries.
Figure 2: Science across the world. (B) Countries with the highest proportion of women awarded science degrees [7].
Figure 2: Science across the world. (B) Countries with the highest proportion of women awarded science degrees [7].

About the Author

JULIANA ARIFFIN is a fourth year PhD student studying human immune responses at The Institute for Molecular Biosciences at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Prior to beginning her PhD, she worked for a year as a research assistant following her Honours degree. In her spare time she reads fiction, dabbles in photography and considers genetically engineering a zombie propagating virus to repopulate the earth.

Find out more about Juliana Ariffin by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile: http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/julianna/

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11. Check out other articles in Issue 11 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11 (PDF version)


[1] Women and men in science, engineering and technology: the UK statistics guide (2010). Gill Kirkup, Anna Zalevski, Takao Maruyama and Isma Batool, the UKRC. http://oro.open.ac.uk/29517/1/UKRC_Statistics_Guide_2010.pdf

[2] 5 Reasons Women Trail Men in Science by Stephanie Pappas. (2013). Livescience.com

[3] Women in Biotechnology: Barred from the Boardroom. (2013). Alisan McCook. Special Edition: Women in Science. Nature.com http://www.nature.com/news/women-in-biotechnology-barred-from-the-boardroom-1.12546

[4] From Bench to Board: Gender Differences in University Scientist’ Participation in Corporate Scientific Advisory Boards. (2012). Ding, W., Murray, F. & Stuart, T. Acad. Mgmt J. http://amj.aom.org/content/56/5/1443.abstract

[5] AcademiaNet: A database of high-performing female researchers of all disciplines. http://goo.gl/dg4Mm1

[6] Gender disparity in the C-suite: Do male and female CEOs differ in how they reached the top? (2014). Terrance Fitzsimmons, Victor J. Callan and Neil Paulsen. The Leadership Quarterly.

[7] What Gender is Science. (2011). Maria Charles. American Sociological Association. http://contexts.org/articles/spring-2011/what-gender-is-science/

[8] Gender Differences and Trends in the Participation of Malaysians in Education: Implications on Employment Outcomes. (2009). Aminah Ahmad. University Putra Malaysia. http://goo.gl/zHZqhP

Extra reading:

[9] Special Edition: Women in Science. (2013). Nature.com http://www.nature.com/news/specials/women/index.html

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