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National Survey Conducted by AAAS and Science Confirms Continuing Obstacles to Women in Science

A survey conducted by AAAS and Science at the request of L’Oréal USA suggests that “gender still matters with regard to women’s being able to be successful and to move ahead in science,” said Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources at AAAS.

Malcom and others responded to the survey, completed for AAAS-Science by Cell Associates, during a 23 September panel discussion on Capitol Hill, convened by L’Oréal USA and Discover Magazine.

Currently, more women are obtaining doctoral degrees than men, according to a ScienceInsider news report by Kristen Minogue. “But the bad news is that they’re less likely to enter and remain in scientific careers,” Minogue explained in her coverage of the Hill event. “Beyond the doctoral level, the ratio of women to men starts to dip below one.”

According to the National Science Board’s 2010 Science & Engineering Indicators, women with doctoral degrees in science and engineering held a third of all faculty positions in academia as of 2006. Women’s representation was significantly lower in key fields, however. Women represented only about 11% of all full-time faculty researchers in engineering, for example, and less than one-fourth of those in computer sciences.

“We need to be more imaginative about how one can have a successful career in science as well as a life,” Malcom said in an interview before the Hill event. “It will be necessary to re-orient the expectations so that women scientists face fewer hurdles and can play on a level field with their male counterparts.”

Policymakers and employers can help “smooth the path so that we can make better use of the talent that is represented by women,” said Malcom. She noted also that enhancing U.S. competitiveness and innovation requires diversifying science.

Women in science. The 23 September event on Capitol Hill on the barriers that continue to confront women in science featured several prominent scientists, educators and policy experts, including (from left to right) writer/blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum (the panel moderator); Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education; and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Appropriately crafted legislation as well as employer accommodations for female scientists who are juggling work and family responsibilities were cited by Malcom and other panelists as examples of solutions. U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), for example, has proposed policy strategies such as National Science Foundation training workshops for grant-seekers to raise the awareness of issues faced by women in science. Johnson also has set forth legislation to promote gender parity among university faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (H.R. 1144).

“The barriers are not broken down,” Johnson said during opening remarks at the Hill event. “We need to keep the attention on getting rid of those barriers as much as we can.”

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Current federal protections against gender discrimination include Title IX, also known as the Education Amendment Act of 1972, explained panelist Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education. “So much progress has been made over the last three decades when it comes to women’s progress in higher education,” she noted. “Folks tend to think we are done.”

In fact, “while 55% of Advanced Placement test-takers now are women, which is very good news, only about 15% of AP computer science test-takers are women,” said Ali, citing data from the National Center for Women in Information Technology. “And when we look even underneath those averages… we’re realizing that only about 3% of computer scientists in the country are female and African American, only about 3% are female and Asian, and only 1% are female and Latino.”

Two other panelists—professors Joan Steitz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Yale University, and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—discussed the psychological challenges that women in science may encounter. Steitz recalled, for instance, that “it was very, very lonely in the early 1970s” when she received her first faculty appointment. Such isolation can impair innovation and damage female scientists’ confidence, said Seager.

As outlined in Minogue’s ScienceInsider news report, panelists’ specific advice to women in science included recommendations for finding mentors, negotiating pay, and identifying institutional Title IX coordinators.

“The contributions of female scientists are critical to U.S. advancements in science and economic growth,” Frédéric Rozé, president and chief executive officer of L’Oréal USA, said in a news release. Rozé urged “national dialogue about breaking barriers and forging new paths for women in science.”

The L’Oréal-Discover panel was moderated by Sheril Kirshenbaum of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas Austin, a science blogger with

Coincidentally, the Women in Science panel took place just as the National Academies were releasing a new report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, which emphasizes the relationship between science, national competitiveness, and economic growth. The American Chemical Society applauded the report’s conclusions, stating in a press release: “If America is to recover from years of severe job losses and financial crisis, the nation must stay the course of smart, sustained investments in our most valuable economic engine: scientific research and globally competitive education that together fuel technological innovation.”

The National Academies report revisits a 2005 edition, “which had called for a 10% annual increase in government funding of basic scientific research for seven years,” according to a Nature news report.

AAAS-Science Survey Results

In the AAAS-Science survey, some 98% of all women who responded reported that they know a female colleague who has left the science field because she encountered barriers to her professional success.

In addition, of the 1300 female and male scientists who took part in the survey, 61% of female respondents said that they had personally struggled to balance life and career. More than half of female respondents (52%) reported experiencing gender bias, and half (50%) cited challenges with child care support as a major barrier for individuals working in the science field. More than one-third (34%) of female respondents said that they had encountered limited access to mentors. Elder care was nominated as a barrier by 22% of women and 12% of men.

Respondents to the Science-AAAS survey included male and female scientists who hold doctoral degrees and are members of AAAS. Questions focused on the barriers that scientists face when beginning and advancing their professional careers, the extent to which the barriers affect females and males differently, and solutions to overcome these obstacles.

The survey suggested that significant barriers are causing many female and male scientists to make personal sacrifices or leave their chosen career field. For example, the vast majority of survey participants (83%) had a colleague who left the field due to one of the barriers cited in the survey. Respondents said that they felt male scientists who left the field were more constrained by tangible barriers such as insufficient pay, access to grants/funding, or job scarcity. In contrast, respondents said that they felt women scientists left the field because they were constrained by work/life balance, having and raising children, and gender biases.

Among the report’s central conclusions:

  • Nearly all women who participated in the survey (98%) know a female colleague who left the science field because she encountered barriers to her professional success;
  • Balancing life and career and having/raising children were cited as the top two reasons why female colleagues left their science careers; and
  • Female respondents cited gender biases as the reason why female colleagues left the field almost twice as frequently as male colleagues (47% of females versus 24% of males).

The survey suggested that male and female scientists agree that the three most significant barriers include access to grants/funding, scarcity of job openings, and balancing life and career. But female scientists reported struggling with gender bias at work. When asked to rank 11 barriers to achieving their career goals, female respondents ranked gender-based barriers fourth, compared to male respondents who ranked gender bias ninth out of 11 total barriers.

The survey included these additional key findings:

  • 61% of female scientists who participated in the study have personally struggled balancing life and career;
  • More than half of female scientists (52%) have experienced gender bias;
  • Half of all female respondents (50%) cited challenges with child care support as a major barrier for individuals working in the science field;
  • 34% of female scientists have encountered limited access to mentors;
  • Nearly one-third of female scientists (28%) have experienced a lack of role models in their careers; and
  • 20% of female scientists felt that their work environment lacked gender diversity, versus only 11% of men.

“We’ve got to re-think the employment options for female scientists across the full spectrum, from full-time to part-time and flex-time, and encompassing child-care benefits,” Malcom said. “We’ve got to re-think the reward structure for these scientists, too, and that means re-valuing it.”

Other highlights from the survey:

Personal sacrifices: While the majority of scientists reported having to sacrifice personal goals to achieve professional goals, the impact of personal sacrifices seemed to be dramatically demonstrated among female scientists who were significantly less likely to be married or have children.

  • About three-fourths of all respondents (74%) said they had sacrificed their personal goals to achieve professional goals.
  • Female respondents were less likely to be married or in a long-term relationship than men (78% of females versus 91% of males).
  • Female respondents were much less likely to have children than their male counterparts (53% of females versus 77% of males).

Breaking or bridging barriers: Most of the scientists surveyed felt that barriers to professional success in the scientific field can be overcome and believe a variety of resources ranging from economic to social support can help. Male and female respondents agreed that the four most helpful resources to overcoming career barriers in the sciences were colleagues or peers, personal friends or family, mentors, and grants/fellowships. However, women respondents were more likely to rely on people-oriented resources such as mentors, colleagues, and family.

  • The majority of participants said colleagues or peers (61% of males, 65% of females) are the most helpful resource for overcoming career barriers.
  • Half of female respondents said that mentors could have helped them to overcome barriers, versus 33% of male respondents.
  • A quarter (25%) of female participants noted that more support from teachers or advisors could have helped them overcome career obstacles, versus only 14% of males.
  • A majority of female scientists (60%) agreed that personal friends or family members are among the most helpful resource for overcoming professional barriers, in comparison to less than half (40%) of male scientists.
  • Female respondents were also much more inclined to believe that government and corporations should play a role in breaking barriers that hinder women. Nearly two-thirds of women (64%) think government should play a role; less than half of men (45%) agree. The numbers were almost identical when respondents were asked whether corporations should play such a role.

Future outlook: Despite the barriers, a large majority of survey respondents (81% of men, 72% of women) would recommend a science career to others, signifying that the rewards of that career choice outweigh the challenges and that science is a worthwhile and fulfilling path for both men and women.


Read the full document, “Barriers for Women Scientists Survey Report.”

Read Kristen Minogue’s ScienceInsider report, “Six Ways to Keep Women in Science.”

Learn more about the new report from the U.S. National Academies, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited.”

Watch Shirley Malcom and other experts discuss the “Barriers for Women Scientists Survey Report.”