Increasing the Representation of Women in Science: Should We Be Careful About What We Wish For?

As a past-president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS.org), I am an active advocate for increasing opportunities for women to pursue and find success in STEM careers.   But some emerging trends in some fields are causing me to question exactly what it is the success might look like for women in science.  Reading this post (http://nautil.us/blog/are-we-being-too-superficial-about-the-gender-problem-in-science) reminded me of conversations occurring for a long time in academic psychology about the concern that psychology was becoming “feminized” – meaning the majority of its professionals were female.  The fear, of course, is that the % of a profession that is female and the “value” of the profession are inversely related.  The same concern is now arising in a number of scientific disciplines.

At JSMF we spend a significant amount of time reviewing faculty webpages in the fields of research the Foundation supports.  Increasingly I have been concerned that in some of the biological sciences, regardless of the gender of the PI, the lab pictures of the students and postdocs primarily portray young women.  Why is this a concern?  Aren’t the pictures providing portraits of success for those who care about expanding opportunities for women?  The answer is complicated.  Because another trend I am noticing is that the more mathematical the nature of the work the less dominant in number women tend to be.   And to me, this is a concern.

The practice of science –even much of the life sciences – is increasingly dependent on highly technical and mathematical approaches – computational modeling, data analytics, visualization tools, and so on.  And these highly sought after skills are in fields where it has been traditionally more difficult for women to be welcomed.  It is not that women are not succeeding (or could not succeed) in these fast-growing and exciting areas of science.  But while you can see traditional life-sciences wet labs fully populated with young women – you would rarely see the same picture looking at AI labs, or in a network neuroscience lab.  After so much effort to gain opportunities for women to pursue professional science careers it would be unfortunate if pervasive societal forces limited those opportunities by limiting the kinds of research careers where women are welcome.  Clearly, meeting the next challenges for women will mean not just opening doors – but opening every door.

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