Soapbox Science

What Can Be Done About Glass Ceilings in Science?

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Ben Thomas writes articles about a variety of topics for the Riley Guide, an online repository for career and education resources. As a freelancer, Ben also covers scientific research and technological breakthroughs as well as social issues involving the sciences. A regular contributor to several leading science news websites, Ben helps scientists and academics connect with the general public by explaining their latest discoveries and controversies in clear, down-to-earth terms.

Promotions in scientific careers don’t always follow the same rules of objectivity as the disciplines into which they fall. More than 40 years after the federal government passed Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in every educational program that receives federal funding, discrimination on the basis of gender and culture continues to persist in the sciences – both in intentional and unintentional manifestations. Here, three scientific experts contribute their insights on the root causes of these “glass ceilings”. They discuss the ways that gender and cultural biases can play out in individual scientists’ career paths and the ways in which some organizations are already making efforts to counteract them.

Unconscious causes

Biases in scientific fields can develop against men or women who hail from a variety of cultures. According to many experts, the unifying principles that inform these biases aren’t always intentional, and they  emerge when differing professional expectations and corporate cultures meet.

“A lot of bias-influenced decisions aren’t malicious decisions or even discriminatory decisions,” says Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers. “But the net result is the same: they prevent some talented people from getting ahead.”

So how can differences, for example, in communication styles,  bubble up into concrete distinctions among career paths and promotion levels?, A 2010 study funded by the National Science Foundation learned that recommendation letters written by women tended to focus on adjectives like “affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, tactful and agreeable,” whereas recommendation letters composed by men leaned towards behavior-oriented descriptions and adjectives like “confident, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, daring, outspoken and intellectual.” Though both groups of recommendation letters were equally well-intentioned, small distinctions like these can add up to major divides in upper-management roles.

“I don’t believe that established leaders in their disciplines intend to be intentionally biased or discriminatory; they may simply not know how to deal with those who are ‘different’ from them,” says Donna J. Dean, executive consultant for the Association for Women in Science.

And it’s that managerial difficulty at dealing with differences – especially communication –based  ones – that creates often-unintentional career divides in the sciences.

Differing manifestations

There are other cases of unintentional biases,  in addition to the language used in recommendation letters cited above.

For example, “if you come from a culture that values accuracy, where the messages you receive your entire life are, ‘Only speak when you’re certain – do your research,’ you may not want to speak up in a meeting even if you think you might know the solution to a problem,” Shanahan explains.

Along the same lines, an employee who comes from a culture that emphasizes an attitude of “only speak when you’re fully prepared” may feel unnerved when confronted with a brainstorming exercise that requires him or her to “just say what comes off the top of your head.” Thus, people who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the overall level of office dialogue at their companies or labs may find themselves stuck in low-level positions where they wish to contribute, but encounter only frustration when they enter actual dialogues with their colleagues. When one crunches the numbers, these differences are striking: A recent Time magazine article, which discusses a team-based approach to curing cancer, lists 20 leading cancer researchers, 19 of which are men.

“These figures clearly don’t represent the scientists working in cancer labs, or getting the PhDs or MDs,” says Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology at MIT, “because the actual numbers are 50 percent women.”

Thus, these manifestations of biases – – extend not only to intra-organizational situations, but to how scientists are portrayed in the  press and to the public.

Tackling problems

The good news is that many scientific organizations and institutions have already taken practical steps to address “glass ceilings,” and many others have demonstrated that they’re highly receptive to actionable data on these kinds of professional divisions.

“I’m thrilled by the interest and participation we get in the programs we provide on concrete recommendations,” Shanahan says. “Take, for example, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.” That university’s 2011 report “Stemming the Tide” compared four basic categories of women: Those who receive engineering degrees, those who never practiced engineering, those who went into engineering and left, and those who stayed in the field. In this report, the university’s researchers also published a variety of practical recommendations on how to improve the retention of women engineers within a company. “NASA has also been doing a lot to ensure that Title IX is enforced in STEM programs,” Shanahan says.

For example, NASA recently unveiled a compliance program in which its officers not only analyze and aim to counteract discrimination, but also actively seek out and promote successful scientists from under-promoted groups. Ultimately, though, Hopkins says, “If you believe in equality, it’s not enough just to say so – you have to help to create it.” In other words, speaking up for under-recognized groups helps raise awareness of the issue, but the only way to create lasting change is to reach out to those with the power to promote and recognize scientific achievement, and help them recognize and address their own unconscious biases. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test is a great place to start. “And once you’re aware of your biases,” Shanahan says, “you have to ask yourself if you’re making a false assumption about anyone in your organization.”

Most of us in the early twenty-first century don’t have any deliberate intention of discriminating against or under-promoting any gender, culture or other group. The problem is, our expectations in terms of communication, aggressiveness and even word use can influence our unconscious or semi-conscious choices when it comes time to hand out an award or a promotion. These glass ceilings can’t be shattered with good intentions alone – it takes an active intention to seek out unconscious biases in ourselves, to recognize achievements regardless of how we feel about the people who made them possible, and to look beyond physical and verbal factors in order to focus on our organizations’ quantifiable metrics of achievement. Changes are happening, but they’ll only persist if we hold to a scientific attitude and focus our attention on valuable data, rather than on how  – and by whom – that data is presented.



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