Do we really still need to empower women in science?

by Melanie Seiler, PhD | Biologist, Conservationist, Behavioral Scientist and Founder of The Female Scientist  

– The article below was originally published by The Female Scientist on April 27, 2017 – 

Are women and men perceived and treated equally in science? Do we still need special programs to support female scientists? This is what science tells us!

“Women today have much better career opportunities in academia than men because they are specifically promoted.”

“Nowadays, men are discriminated against, because there are so many projects just focusing on women in academia.”

“Boys need to be specifically promoted, as girls do far better in school and thus have better job opportunities.”

These are just some of the regular comments I have heard in recent years when discussing the situation of female scientists, or just revealing myself as a woman working in science. It is true that, especially in the STEM fields (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the proportion of women in faculties has increased in the past few decades. Many more girls have started to study, at least equally successfully to their male colleagues, but are career chances truly equally for man and women in academia, or, as many suggest, even better for women? Unfortunately, a number of studies focusing on this question show that this is not the case at all.

Already in the 80s, Heilman (1980) found that the preference for hiring male applicants was greater the smaller the proportion of women (25% or less) in the applicant pool was when applying for a managerial position. This represents a problem in academia, especially in the STEM fields, where rates of woman are lower than males either way.

Since the ‘80s, a lot of effort has been spent increasing the amount of woman in academia, as well as in further leadership positions. We have indeed come a long way, but how successful have these efforts really been? Have the attitudes towards women in science really changed? Unfortunately, the studies covering this topic in recent decades all have one thing in common – they reveal that women and men in science are not perceived as equal at all, thus hindering woman to achieve the same status male colleagues are able to obtain.

A recent study by Grunspan et al. (2016) found that males enrolled in undergraduate biology classes consistently believed their male classmates to be more knowledgeable about course content, even in comparison to better-performing female students. The female biology students, on the other hand, ranked male and female peers equally. The authors argue that this social environment, underestimating female abilities, could be one reason why woman leave sciences in greater proportion than males.

But, surely, at a higher level in sciences, such biases cannot matter? Scientists have learned to be unbiased, and wouldn’t prefer males over females, regardless of their qualifications, would they? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) found that female applicants for a university position were perceived as less competent and hireable as male counterparts with identical qualifications. In a randomized double-blind study, members of science faculties were asked to rate the application of a randomly assigned student with a female or male name for a laboratory manager position. Faculty members rated the male applicant as more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant and selected a higher starting salary. Furthermore, they offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. Surprisingly, gender and age of the faculty members did not affect the responses. Overall, this study found that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.

In a similar study by Steinpreis et al. (1999), male and female psychology professors were asked to evaluate and determine the suitability of male and female applicants as assistant professor. The university professors, regardless of the identical candidate’s qualifications, preferred the male applicant by a 2:1 ratio. Additionally, when being asked to evaluate candidates for a promotion to tenure, the study participants preferred the male applicants by a 4:1 ratio. Male as well as female professors rated the male applicant’s abilities in teaching and research higher than the female ones and were both more interested in hiring the male applicant.

Another recent study (Carli et al., 2016) shows that both men and scientists are perceived as independent and agentic (proactive, self-motivating), whilst women are perceived as being communal and not having desirable traits for scientists. Female participants perceived more similarity between women and scientists and judged women to be more agentic than male participants did. The results demonstrate that women are perceived to lack the qualities needed to be successful scientists, which may contribute to discrimination and prejudice against female scientists.

It doesn’t stop there – a study by Wenneras and Wold (1997) on awarded postdoctoral fellowships revealed that female candidates needed substantially more publications (three or more high impact papers) to be awarded in the same ratio as men who were given the fellowship, with the only exceptions being those who knew someone in the panel personally.

Being regarded as less competent by the majority of peers in the academic system (regardless of a woman’s qualifications) makes it harder to obtain an academic position as a female scientist, as shown by Trix and Psenka (2003). For their study, they analyzed over 300 recommendation letters at a large American medical school. Letters for female applicants clearly differed from those for males, being shorter, having higher amounts of negative language and raising more doubts. Furthermore, phrases referring to female and male applicants (‘her teaching,’ ‘his research’) portrayed woman as students and teachers, whilst men were portrayed as researchers and professionals, therefore promoting more men than women into academic positions.

Having obtained a position in academia, female scientists might not be treated equally to male colleagues still, as a study by Duch et al. (2007) suggests. Here it was found that gender differences in publication rate and impact factor were discipline-specific in STEM fields. Lower publication rates of female scientists were likely to be correlated with the amount of research resources available and supposedly explained by less institutional support received by female scientists. Furthermore, in disciplines where aiming for an academic position was connected to a higher career risk, female scientists had a greater number of higher impact publications than male colleagues.

Finally – here comes my favorite study. Many girls and women think it’s not possible to be a woman and have a family, whilst also pursuing a successful scientific and academic career. Unfortunately, some studies support this.

Correll, Benard & Paik (2007) studied the perception of mothers and father in academia. Panels were asked to evaluate applications that were identical, except in whether the applicant did or did not have children. They found that mothers were rated as less competent and committed to the position than women without children. Having children reduced the chance of being recommended for hire, promotion, or management by half. Furthermore, mothers were even offered lower starting salaries. Replicating the same study design with fathers came to a quite different result: fathers were even more advantaged than non-fathers – they were seen as more competent, committed, and were offered higher starting salaries than non-fathers. Can you believe this? You can still be a female scientist and have children!

So, what are the consequences of being constantly underrated for women in sciences? Quite obvious, the lower competence ratings for female scientists have immediate consequences regarding chances of being hired, receiving a fellowship, being promoted, and similar. But, the lower ratings also erode confidence and might impact productivity. This is a huge problem, as it becomes clear that a female scientist must have accomplished more than a male colleague to be judged equal, making it more difficult for a female to be viewed as an outstanding scientist. This way, more and more differences build up – female scientists have fewer chances to have a successful career in comparison to their male colleagues – this might be the best-case scenario. They also might (and often do) simply drop out of science because it is harder for them to get a position, or because they start to value their abilities lower than their male colleagues, because this is what is presented to them on a daily basis. Even worse, many potential female scientists might not even try to start a career in science, just because of the public perception of men being better scientists.

In summary, the outcomes of undervaluation are severe, and can seriously decrease women’s career success – and as a society, we should be worried about the risks of losing all these qualified scientists along with their possibly unique ideas. Regardless of efforts being undertaken to increase rates of women in academia by special mentoring programs or quotas, little seems to have changed in the recent decades. At present, it looks like the working environment for female scientists may not hugely change significantly for the better anytime soon – the gender stereotypes largely remain the same, clearly showing that more programs and quotas to increase the number of woman in sciences are urgently needed, and that even further efforts are necessary to change the public image of women in science.

Though the current state might be depressing, we have the power to change it! The numbers of women in sciences are increasing, and I am sure that we will have a major impact on the careers of female scientists and scientist-to-be if we start to massively promote the fantastic work already conducted by them. So, get involved, get out, present yourself, highlight your achievements, and make people aware of good and bad things of the current system! Why not start right now and write something for The female Scientist?

About The Female Scientist 

  1. We aim to promote young female researchers by increasing the overall public presence of female scientists. Furthermore, we want to correct classic stereotypes by presenting “real” female scientists – in which areas do female scientists work? What have they achieved? What type of people are these women? What are they interested in?
  2. We aim to support female scientists by means of an increased media presence, including easy access to their achievements and research and by increasing the networking between them. We also aim to cover more personal topics, which convey a realistic picture of researchers thoughts and problems, and thus also contribute to the personal welfare of researchers.
  3. By acting worldwide we aim to especially strengthen female researchers from developing countries and make their work and problems visible to the public.


Carli L. L., Lee Y., Zhao B. & Kim E. (2016) Stereotypes About Gender and Science: Women ≠ Scientists. Psychology of Women Quarterly. Vol. 40. 244-260.

Correll S.J., BenardS. & Paik I. (2007) Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 112.1297.

Duch J., Zeng X.H.T, Sales-Pardo M., Radicchi F., Otis S., Woodruff T.K.& Nunes Amaral L.A. (2012) The Possible Role of Resource Requirements and Academic Career-Choice Risk on Gender Differences in Publication Rate and Impact. PLOS ONE 8 

Grunspan D.Z., Eddy, S.L., Brownell S.E., Wiggins, B.L., Crowe, A.J. & Goodreau S.M. (2016) Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms. PLoS ONE 11. 

Heilman M. E. (1980). The impact of situational factors on personnel decisions concerning women: varying the sexcomposition of the applicant pool. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 26. 386-395

Moss-Racusin C.A., Docidio J.F., Brescoll V.L., Graham, M.J. & Handelsman J. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109.16474. 

Steinpreis, R., Anders, K.A., and Ritzke, D. (1999) “The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study.” Sex Roles 41: 509-528.

Trix F. & Psenka C. (2003) Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medic faculty. Discourse & Society 14. 191-220.

Wenneras C. & Wold A. (1997) Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature. 387. 341-43.