• April 21, 2014

Is Biology Just Another Pink-Collar Profession?

More women than men are earning degrees in biology, contradicting those people who used to claim that girls simply weren't interested in science, or that the mathematics required for a biology degree was, in the immortal words of Barbie, too "tough."

In 2009, women received a majority of the degrees awarded in biological and biomedical sciences, from associate to Ph.D., and earned 53 percent of the doctorates, according to The Chronicle's Almanac of Higher Education. Those numbers do not include the health professions and related clinical sciences, where the disparity is even more female-biased: 59 percent of all Ph.D.'s in those areas went to women.

Taken as a whole, that's a lot of female scientists, many of whom intend to use their degrees in academe. But does this achievement mean that the pipeline to the professoriate is no longer leaky, and that the problem of underrepresentation of women in science—at least the life sciences—as well as technology, engineering, and math is over? Will gender soon stop being an issue for those of us concerned with equity in higher education?

We suspect not, for at least two reasons.

First, demography alone has not solved the problem in the past. We frequently make presentations about gender and science to young audiences; since perhaps the early 1990s, a common response from graduate students to the concern about lack of female professors is that "their" cohort had not yet gone through the system. In other words, the students optimistically suggested, all we needed to do was wait for them to move into the academic job market in equivalent proportion to their numbers. Unfortunately, that has not occurred over the past few decades, and it is not likely to happen now. Although the landmark majority of female biology Ph.D.'s was reached only recently, the number of women in undergraduate and graduate programs in the life sciences has been increasing for the past several decades.

That rise, however, has not translated into proportionately more women in postdoctoral or faculty positions. A 2002 report for the University of California President's Summit on Faculty Gender Equity found that while women were earning 45 percent of the Ph.D.'s in biology, women represented only 37 percent of postdoctoral appointments in biology (and 37 percent of the new-faculty appointments). That indicates a major leak in the pipeline between Ph.D. achievement and postdoctoral appointments.

Postdocs are now de rigueur in most of the biological sciences, but they often require moving from the Ph.D.-granting institution, sometimes multiple times, before attaining a more-permanent academic position. A 2010 report from the National Research Council indicated that while women made up 45 percent of Ph.D.'s in biology from 1999 to 2003, only 38.8 percent of assistant professors in biology were women in 2003.

The reasons for the mismatch between the availability of qualified women and their representation in the academy are complex. Some women are constrained by their personal lives, feeling the pull to start a family when tenure-track careers, and the frequent moves that accompany them, are at their most intense.

A 2008 report by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, "Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know," said that female scientists are more likely than men to be in dual-academic-career partnerships and to refuse job offers because of the employment constraints of their partners. The study found that 83 percent of female scientists in academic couples had other scientists as partners.

A 2009 report by the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security and the Center for American Progress, "Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences," said that "family formation accounts for the largest leaks in the pipeline" between Ph.D. and tenure for women in sciences.

The National Research Council report suggested that women may be less likely to apply for academic positions. In a survey of Research I institutions, women accounted for only 26 percent of the applicants for tenure-track positions. Reports also cite a lack of mentoring, a disinclination to persist in what can be perceived as an overly competitive or hostile work environment, and a lesser predilection for negotiating promotions or higher-status positions as reasons for women's being less likely to be represented in STEM fields, biology included. In a study released in September, a group of Yale researchers provided evidence that "women's advancement within academic science may be actively impeded" by subtle gender bias in how women are perceived and treated.

While increasing the number of women in science might help resolve some of those problems, the "add women and stir" approach to gender equity doesn't necessarily work. The field of biology shows that while having more women in the pipeline can help avoid tokenism, for example, it is no guarantee that the system itself will change.

The second reason that awarding a majority of life-science degrees to women is unlikely to resolve issues of gender inequity is more subtle. Female-dominated professions—"pink collar" fields such as nursing, elementary education, and social work—are historically less prestigious and less well paid than male-dominated jobs requiring similar skills and education or training. Even when men enter pink-collar fields, as they are now doing in record numbers, those men tend to be promoted more swiftly and paid more than women. Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Georgia State University, calls this the "glass escalator."

Women in biology, even if they do make it through the perilous postdoc stage, and even if they come to predominate at, say, the assistant-professor level, are still likely to encounter a glass ceiling. Even now, academic salaries are higher in male-dominated fields, such as engineering and economics, although the reasons for the disparity are complex. (Within biology, some subdisciplines, such as plant biology, have more women than do others—bioengineering, for example—although whether salaries are lower in the former is hard to determine.) Such wage differentials suggest that even if academic biology becomes female-dominated, the problem of gender equity is unlikely to go away.

The lower status of "women's work" and the way in which the stigma is attached to gender and not to the work itself are also illustrated by the history of computer science. In the early 1900s, intensive computational work was done by women, often because those were the only positions available to women with an interest in mathematics or science. According to David Skinner's review of When Computers Were Human, by David Alan Grier, "Respected mathematicians would blithely approximate the problem-solving horsepower of computing machines in 'girl-years' and describe a unit of machine labor as equal to one 'kilogirl.'" Women also performed many of the early astronomical calculations. Although some of that work was routine, other parts required intellectual effort and insight. It became respected, and highly paid, only once men dominated the fields.

We do not mean to be pessimistic, merely clear-eyed and cognizant of history. While it is a great achievement that women are equally represented among Ph.D. recipients in some fields, the work to achieve gender equity in higher education cannot stop there. Academe must continue to examine the many faces of gender bias in areas such as salaries, work-life balance, and department culture to continue progress toward an equitable and inclusive professoriate.

Marlene Zuk is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Sheila O'Rourke is director of the University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.