Study explores barriers facing women in science, identifies keys to progress

SYDNEY — As more education programs look to encourage young girls to become scientists, one study is looking at how these women can also become leaders in their field. Researchers from the networking organization Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering (WICGE) find that while women make up about a third of their scientific community, they only represent about 20 percent of its leadership roles.

The study breaks down gender representation in the committees and boards of nine scientific societies, 25 journals, and 10 conferences. They supplement their findings with a global survey on the issue, getting responses from 314 people overall. The researchers represent scientific communities in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Spain.

“Our findings are important not only for our field of research but also for other fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and beyond,” says Ana Vila-Concejo from the University of Sydney in a release. “Reading the survey responses was harder than we had anticipated; I could not read all responses in one go as I was in tears. We found flagrant examples of inequality that included dramatic decisions such as an early career researcher deciding to undergo an abortion out of fear of jeopardizing her chances of securing an academic position.”

Lead author Ana Vila-Concejo is an associate professor and co-leader of the Geocoastal Research Group at the University of Sydney. She is also the deputy director of the One Tree Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef. Vila-Concejo adds her team’s findings can be applied to professional women in almost any industry.

What’s holding women in the field of science back?

Based on the survey responses, the researchers find several common barriers to women advancing to prestige positions:

  • Stereotyping: respondents report being seen as incompetent or not being taken seriously because of their gender.
  • “Boy’s clubs”: some male scientists create insular groups within their workgroups that exclude women.
  • The “maternal wall”: a perception that women being pregnant or having children always negatively affects their job performance.
  • Microaggressions and harassment: being subjected to comments or actions related to their looks.

The steps to success

The solutions researchers propose include promoting more high-achieving women, advocate for more women in prestige roles, create better awareness of gender bias, speaking up in the workplace, create better support systems for women returning from maternity leave, redefining success, and encouraging women to enter the sciences at younger ages.

“The first four steps we recommend can be successfully implemented immediately, while others need institutional engagement and represent major societal overhauls,” Shari Gallop from Macquarie University says.

The study appears in the journal Palgrave Communications.

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