Same same, but different: what can we learn from gender ratios between disciplines?

I have always been passionate about gender equity in all aspects of life, and particularly in science. I started my scientific career with a PhD in astrophysics and then moved to a medical research institute. So I have seen, first hand, differences in gender equity across disciplines. Believe me, these differences are not inconsequential; they are real and alive.

What’s common in all scientific disciplines is that there are relatively fewer women in senior roles, and the higher the level, the worse it gets. However, looking across looking across disciplines, the starting proportions of women are vastly different, even at the undergraduate level. For example, a report from the USA showed that the proportion of women graduating from bioscience was more than 50%, while in computer science or engineering women represent less than 20% of graduates. These numbers are vastly different. To me, understanding and combatting differences between disciplines has the greatest potential to significantly improve gender representation across science.

No matter what field, the two fundamental questions I have about gender equity in science are: what are the factors that cause women to be under-represented and what can we do about it? Unfortunately the answers to these questions are complex and nuanced and I’m not sure I can answer them any better than others have previously. However, I thought I’d consider what we can learn about gender balance by looking at differences between disciplines.

Different outcomes in the presence of identical policies

What are the factors that might contribute to gender inequity? Access to childcare, carer responsibilities that are disproportionately affecting women, unconscious (or conscious) bias, evaluation metrics that favour men, organisational culture and a dearth of acceptable role models are all certainly contributing factors. Looking between disciplines allows us to control for some of these factors and get further insight into important aspects of the problem.

One important observation is that university policies around the representation or recruitment of women is the same across a university, as are policies around sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. In addition, access to childcare is often the same for different departments within a university. So, the observation of differences in the representation of women between, for example, a microbiology department and an electrical engineering department, demonstrates that it’s not the university structure and policies that are causing this difference.

Taking a different perspective, I work in the field of bioinformatics, which is a relatively new discipline at the interface of statistics, computer science and biology. We can look at bioinformatics teams and ask why ones located in computer science departments have a lower representation of women compared with those located in medical research institutes. It’s obviously not the discipline itself causing the difference.

The culture clash

These examples lead me to propose that the most significant factor in determining the representation of women in science at a university level is culture. Culture is of course not a single factor, but the pervasive environment and cultural factors that discriminate against women in science are probably reflected in everyday society. However there are cultural differences between departments at the tertiary level that undoubtedly lead to the dramatic differences observed between disciplines. I imagine many women embedded in disciplines with a very low representation of women, such as physics, computer science and engineering, have been exposed to a culture (which can be subtle) that is working against their success. There are many ways this cultural discrimination occurs: negative attitudes towards part-time or flexible working hours, social functions that make women feel uncomfortable, unconscious bias in hiring and promotion and maybe most importantly, subtle undermining comments and actions. Some disciplines (or sub-disciplines) have a truly appalling lack of women, and the culture in these areas needs to change.

The fix

So what can be done to create rapid and sustained cultural change in an academic department? Well it’s not going to come easily and there might be some objections, but talking about having gender balance and having good intentions is not enough to create significant change. Incremental changes, based on current practices, will take many decades to show any results. I believe we have to go the way of cooperate boards and introduce quotas, especially at the higher levels of academia.

With more women in leadership positions, we will create a new culture that will flow on to greater diversity throughout the rest of the department. This is the only way to make a decisive difference and begin to eliminate unfair discrimination between genders.

We need to be bold, we need to be brave and there needs to be affirmative action.

About the author:

Alicia Oshlack, Bioinformatics, Smyth Lab job no: 100775
– Dr Alicia Oshlack, Head, Bioinformatics, MCRI

Dr Alicia Oshlack is the Head of Bioinformatics at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute where she leads a cross-disciplinary team of scientists with a range of backgrounds including molecular biology, computer science, physics and statistics. Alicia started her scientific career with a PhD in astrophysics before turning her data science skills to genomics. She is currently an NHMRC career development fellow and in 2011 she was awarded the Australian Academy of Science Gani Medal for human genetics. Alicia is passionate about women in science.


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