Gender discrimination a reason why females choose careers outside the hard sciences

October 22, 2012 by Amy Hodges

(—Both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a major reason women choose to pursue careers in biology rather than physics, according to new research from Rice University.

"Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science," which appears in the October issue of Gender and Society, reveals differences in the way male and female scientists view disparities in the proportion of in some science disciplines. The study surveyed 2,500 biologists and physicists at 30 elite institutions of higher education in the United States. Researchers also interviewed a smaller scientific sample of 150 scientists one on one about the reasons they believe there are gender differences in scientific disciplines.

"The distribution of women and men across various science-related occupations has long drawn both popular and scholarly attention," said lead study author and principal investigator Elaine Howard Ecklund, an associate professor of sociology. "In our research, we're interested in how scientists explain the different proportions of men and women in biology and physics.

"We know from various pieces of research that people's perceptions of the way things are really influence how they act with other people," she said. "When mentoring students, they might pass these views along. This makes their opinions extremely important, as they can have a significant impact on future scientists and research."

The study's key finding is that both male and female scientists view as a factor in women's decision not to choose a at all or to choose biology over physics. However, the two sexes still have differences in opinion about when discrimination occurs.

"During interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in physical science classes likely took place early in the educational history (primary school), which they believe explains women's to biological sciences," Ecklund said. "However, female scientists believe that discrimination is still occurring in present-day universities and departments."

Regardless of gender or discipline, approximately half of all the scientists interviewed thought that at some point in women's educational lives, they are discouraged from pursing a career in physics.

Other reasons scientists gave to explain the different numbers of women that pursue biology when compared with physics include mentorship of students in the fields of biology and physics and "inherent differences between men and women."

One female scientist said, "I think women … want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. Maybe there are more women in … biology (because) you can be like, 'Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.'"

Whereas women often explained sex differences between the disciplines using reasons of emotional affinity, men stressed neurological differences as being responsible for personal choices. One male scientist suggested that there are "some brain differences between men and women that explain (the between the disciplines)."

Ecklund said, "It's extremely important to understand how scientists at the kind of top research universities we studied feel about this topic, as they train the next generation of researchers and leaders in the sciences and will pass on their ideas to these young scholars."

Ecklund authored the article with co-principal investigator Anne Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and former Rice University undergraduate Cassandra Tansey. The paper is part of Ecklund's larger study with Lincoln titled "Perceptions of Women in ," which examines how male and female biologists and physicists in the U.S. differ in regard to important influences in their science career.

Explore further: Gender-bias impacts women physicists

More information:

Related Stories

Gender-bias impacts women physicists

August 3, 2010

While some might argue that the lack of women in physics is down to personal choice or perhaps even biological determinism, Amy Bug, a physicist at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA instead claims it could be due to small, ...

Many top US scientists wish they had more children

August 8, 2011

Nearly half of all women scientists and one-quarter of male scientists at the nation's top research universities said their career has kept them from having as many children as they had wanted, according to a new study by ...

Marie Curie, go home: Science faculty study shows bias

September 21, 2012

(—A study published in PNAS shows that science faculty members, both men and women, need to bring up their poor grades in gender bias. The study. "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students," reveals ...

Recommended for you

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Oct 22, 2012
No one ever talks about the fields and faculties which have an over representation of females as being a problem which needs solving. So women can't possibly be making their own decisions, it seems. They must be being unfairly shepherded away from their true goals, we are told. They have no will of their own. If wonder if women know how negative a view feminists have of them.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.