Are More Women Entering the Sciences?

Are More Women Entering the Sciences?

Why you should care

Data drives policy. It’s 2015. 

Ever wonder, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded in science, how many have gone to women? One in five? Ten percent? Actually, about 5 percent — seriously. Which gives you some idea about how few women enter the top fields of science. The latest stats show that only one in 10 women holds a top-level science position. But we’re here to make a bold prediction. Those fine gentlemen in Oslo who decide who receives the great prize will be naming more women. And they will come from one country: Germany.

The number of female researchers in Germany has increased by 25 percent over the past five years.

That’s according to academic publisher Elsevier, whose analytics-services team conducted the study by cross-checking Scopus, a database of peer-reviewed literature, with social-networking gender data. Nobody knows exactly why careers for women in science have progressed the way that so many other careers have, but there are a couple of theories. We can sum up the first as more women — more science women: “The support and encouragement of other programs” has led to higher percentages of female college graduates and Ph.D.s than ever before, according to study author George Lan. Plus, in Germany, there’s been a cultural shift — women who worked used to be criticized as “raven mothers,” says Allyson Zimmermann, executive director of Catalyst Europe, a nonprofit that builds inclusive environments for women. Now, however, because of basic financial needs, everyone has to work. (And it can’t hurt that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physics.)

The gender picture, of course, varies in other places. Cornell professor Stephen Ceci says the American academy has largely been gender-fair since the ’90s, though challenges still exist, particularly for women with young families. But even in progressive Sweden, women were found to not publish papers in equal numbers to men until they were in their 50s. So perhaps the situation in Germany indicates a positive trend. For one, in the immortal words of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “It’s 2015.” If that weren’t enough, women, who publish at roughly the same rate as their male counterparts when they become senior researchers, were found in the Elsevier study to publish interdisciplinary research more than men. And they’re writing about topics that men often don’t touch, relating to family and children.

But Elsevier’s analytics-services team cautions that it’s “misleading to just focus on the absolute number of female researchers increasing.” Money for research has expanded, so the number of researchers overall, including men, has increased in Germany. And Germany has a long way to go. For one thing, women are still vastly outnumbered — in 2014, women accounted for a little under a third of researchers. The study also found that fewer women than men are working 10 years after their first publications in Germany.

Lan suggests improving work and family policies. The tide is turning from simply accepting gender disparity to attempting to understand how and when it happens. Thus, data. “Otherwise, we will continue to design interventions and throw money where the problem doesn’t reside,” Ceci says.

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