Women in Leadership: Women in Science

22 Oct

Women in Leadership: Women in Science
Gladys Banfor
GALS Board

Women in Science:
What’s the Problem?

Until the late 1800’s women were not allowed to go to college this allowed men to keep women out of science in the past [1].  Now that institutional barrier has been overcome and the number of degree earning women has exceeded that of men the number of women in science should have increased, yet it is still very low [1]. So, what is the problem?

Today women earn about 58 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S., but women receive only about 21 percent of degrees in the field of computer and information science, and only 19 percent of engineering degrees [2].  Even with all the effort spent trying to improve the number of women undergraduates in physical sciences, a new study shows most universities are failing [2].  Not only are women under represented in the science they tend to under preforming their male classmates. This may in part be due to the teaching environment found in science departments [2]. Efforts to close the gender gap often focus on students instead of institutional structures. Studies have found the institution, in some cases unintentionally, “often portrays science and engineering as highly competitive, masculine domains”[2] thus discouraging women from pursuing theses fields. Although many universities are dedicated to increasing women presence in these “elite fields,” their programs improvements often include such things as peer mentoring instead of creating real structural change [2]. Universities then to favor the “easier” fix approached that have shown a lack of results. As a result of these institutional structures, fewer women pursue these fields in school contributing to the gender gap found in these fields.

Many in the field have also attributed the gender gap to the view shared by both men and women that science just isn’t a good choice for women [3]. Many women feel the pressure to perform in science is too great. A successful science career required scientists to devote their life to the lab. They may spend well over 40 hours a week at the lab. These lifestyle demands conflicts with women’s family desires and needs [3].  Women who still play a lead role in their family responsibilities have a hard time finding a balance. It’s hard to have kids and work a 70-hour week [3].  Along with the stresses of the job, women lack a support network. The tiny population of women scientists causes a lack of role models [1] and peers. Women have few people they can turn to for guidance in the male dominated field. This creates a greater expectation and places more demand on women in these fields.

There is substantive proof that the lack of women in leading roles of science is not because of the “old boys club” ideals in the hiring process it is the intimidating atmosphere and life choices of women that keep them from entering this profession [2]. Whether this is the fault of women or society is hard to determine. The real issue is whether it matters. If women simply prefer to not enter the physical science fields then is there a reason to worry about the differences in gender representation?


[1] http://www.andreagrant.org/work/paper.html



Gladys Banfor is a member of the GALS Board and is  a second-year in the College. She is the Board’s most passionate advocate for women in the sciences, when she is not advising us on innovative programming.


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