Fewer women pursue careers in physics than in biology, and scientists from around the world believe these differences come down to personal preferences, a study finds.
The study’s researchers warn that chalking this imbalance up to merely individual choice may diminish the push for gender equality in the sciences.
Using survey data collected from academic biologists and physicists in the United States (1,777 total), Italy (1,257), France (648), and Taiwan (780), the researchers examine how scientists’ social identities and the countries in which they reside shape their explanations of gender inequality in science. Their findings appear in Gender, Work and Organization.
Elaine Howard Ecklund, one of the study’s authors, a professor of sociology at Rice University, and director of its Boniuk Institute, says regardless of the scientists they surveyed, the decisions of women to not pursue careers in physics were interpreted by the respondents through a lens of individualism. The danger in this, Ecklund says, is ignoring the way preferences themselves are shaped by gendered processes. For example, previous studies have demonstrated that women are more likely to be excluded from professional networks because of their gender, penalized for being or potentially becoming mothers, and not having sufficient access to professional mentoring—all of which are factors that can affect the choices they make for pursuing or avoiding a particular field of science.
“These barriers ultimately prevent women from entering, persisting, and advancing in academic science along different points in the pipeline,” notes Di Di of Santa Clara University, a lead author of the study.
Ecklund further notes how gendered processes are at work long before women make decisions about their field of study, families, or other aspects of life. Prior research suggests women are influenced early on by their parents’ gender roles in the family and their occupations, which shape young women’s decisions to go into fields like science, technology, engineering, math, and other gendered occupations. These occupational selections are viewed as individual choices by scientists surveyed for this study.
“When scientists draw on individualist arguments to explain gender inequality—thus ignoring these gendered processes—they may blunt initiatives that can promote women’s equity in STEM,” says Esther Chan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the lead authors of the study.
Funding for the work came from the Templeton Religion Trust.
Source: Rice University