Recently, the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology hosted a panel covering the topic of women in science. This panel was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the book “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson. Carson herself was a polarizing figure, and the reaction from the contemporary press 50 years ago vacillated between disbelief in the ability of a woman to write such a book to remarking with surprise that she wasn’t a “large and forbidding woman.”

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The women who spoke on the panel were three female scientists from the San Diego area: Dorothy Sears, Lynne Friedmann and Christina Deckard. All gave remarks on what their careers have been like as women in their respective fields. As we are one of the biggest science hubs in the nation, this issue affects thousands of San Diegans. UC San Diego, our major local research university, has consistently awarded more degrees to women than men in the past decade, a huge proportion of which were in the sciences. Outside of the academic realm, there are around 25,000 scientific professionals in the San Diego area. A large portion of these professionals are women, but this is not just an issue that affects them. The topic of women in science affects the culture and workspace surrounding all of our local scientists, and trickles out to the larger San Diego community in general.

As a young female scientist hearing about many of the difficulties faced by Carson and those on the panel, it seems like a far-away time and place to me. I grew up in an education system where I was never told that I couldn’t do something. I wasn’t told that math and science were men’s fields. I was never told that I had to take home economics over shop class. As a Ph.D student in the biomedical sciences, my cohort throughout high school, college, and graduate school has always been at least 50 percent female. Admittedly, this is only one female scientist’s experience. Am I an isolated case or is this the norm?

It is difficult for me to identify with any of the gender bias that the three panelists experienced. And yet when I think about it, all five members of my thesis committee are men. The majority of tenured faculty in my program is men. And that doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of the statistics in the more male-dominated fields of math and engineering.

It is difficult for me to resolve these facts with the personal experience I’ve had. Have we reached gender equality in the sciences or not? In my mind, there are three factors at play.

The overrepresentation of men at the top of their fields could simply be a holdover from a less progressive time. Hearing the stories of Rachel Carson, and the three women on the ethics panel made me realize that this gender discrimination is not ancient history. It is still relatively fresh in both personal and collective memories. Perhaps the greater proportion of men is explained by the fact that it simply takes time to work up to these top positions, and not enough time has passed for the number of women to even out to that of men.

Another explanation is that women are not being offered these top positions. If they are not being offered, is this because those who are in charge are biased to think a man would be more suitable? In a study from 2012, prominent scientists were asked to rank an applicant’s resume for a lab manager position. Identical resumes were submitted, with both male and female names, and the male applicants were consistently given much higher rankings from supervisors of both genders. Not only were the rankings in competence and “hireability” better, but there were marked differences in the pay that the supervisors were willing to offer. This study, performed by fellow scientists, flies in the face of everything I’ve experienced in science. It should make us all question and analyze our unconscious, and perhaps inherent, biases.

The last possibility is that qualified women are being offered top positions, but are “opting out,” or choosing not to take them. Women are often viewed as the primary caregivers, and balancing family life with a successful career can be difficult to manage. Sometimes it is viewed as a matter of changing priorities. Some women may know that they want to leave work to raise a family when they start their careers, and others may make that decision later. Others may even feel pressured by colleagues, friends or family to take the child-rearing route over continuing their career. Whatever the motivation, it was shown recently that women who graduated from top schools and who have children are 20 percent less likely to be in the workforce than similar women without children. Unfortunately, this can cause a trickle-down effect that limits the number of well-qualified women at top of their fields.

None of these reasons for gender imbalance are mutually exclusive, and they likely all exist in varying degrees. The solution to this imbalance will only become evident over time. It will take time to observe a new generation of female scientists work their way up the ladder. I am hopeful that the distribution of women at the top of their fields will even out as new generations enter industry and academia.

The panel, Women in Science, is available to be viewed at UCSD-TV. 

Ward’s commentary has been lightly edited for style, grammar and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Jacqueline Ward

Jacqueline Ward is a Ph.D student in the biomedical sciences at UC San Diego. She lives in San Diego and is a member of the writing group for the San...

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