Gender inequality in academia: the current situation and three women who are breaking barriers

By Amelia Stephenson and Emma Anderson, Science and Policy Exchange

As female students in engineering and neuroscience, we are disheartened by the continued gender inequality within Academia, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Yet, at the same time, we are consistently being inspired by female researchers who are breaking through barriers within their respective fields. In this post, we aim to both inform and empower; by exploring the current situation of gender inequality in academia and sharing the stories of three researchers who inspire us.

The current situation for women in academia

On March 8th, 2021, the internet was awash in posts highlighting the achievements of women for International Women’s Day. Amidst the celebratory fabric is a less joyful thread; women still face widespread gender inequality.

In Academia, women have made strides over the past century. Yet, gender parity hasn’t been achieved. On average, women working in universities are paid less and achieve fewer senior faculty and executive positions. In the US, while women represent 45% of all faculty positions (lecturers, assistant professors and tenured professors), they only represented 26% of tenured professors (in 2016), which are the most secure and highest-paid positions. Intersectional identities also impact inequality; BIPOC women face greater power and pay gaps than white women, both inside and outside of academia. Challenges with discrimination and exclusionary behaviour are also faced by academics identifying as LGBQT+.

The situation is especially bad in STEM. Despite increases in the proportion of women receiving post-graduate degrees, the number of women in STEM faculty positions remains mostly unchanged. The US National Science Foundation reported in 2010 that although women earn half of science and engineering PhDs, they only account for 21% of full science professors and 5% of full engineering professors. A CCUNESCO report from this year, titled Women and post-doctorates: life after graduation,

found that only 12% of full-time STEM professorships in Canada are held by females.

The factors contributing to these disparities are numerous. Greater childcare responsibilities and domestic duties are often to blame, but that’s not the whole story. A UK study found that even when taking parental responsibilities into account, male researchers still reached more senior levels than their female counterparts.

In reality, stereotypes of “women’s work,” sexism, and cold cultures continue to contribute to gender inequality for women in STEM. Systemic biases discourage women from choosing or continuing STEM career paths. Even though women perform equally to men in STEM, they are pushed out of STEM because of a lack of confidence and the perception that STEM jobs are male-dominated. Underrepresentation creates a positive feedback loop, with women more likely to experience imposter syndrome in STEM because they are in male-dominated environments. Feelings of unbelonging can then push women to depart from STEM careers, reinforcing their underrepresentation.

COVID-19 has also disproportionately impacted both women and racialized faculty members, in terms of both productivity and funding. One study showed a decline in the number of female first authors in papers since February 2020. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on the impact of COVID-19 on female researchers warned that the pandemic may erase women’s gains in STEM and Medicine.

There are many issues that need to be addressed to close the pay, power and representation gaps for women in STEM. Better mentorship is needed at all ages. Furthermore, girls need to be shown examples of (diverse) women in STEM, from their teachers to their textbooks to their assignments.

To retain women in STEM faculties, better training is needed to reduce sexism and discrimination and create more inclusive cultures. Leaders in STEM departments need to be held accountable for ensuring diversity and inclusion. Moreover, universities need to adopt policies that support women, such as support for new families, equal pay and laboratory start-up funds, reconfiguration of the tenure clock, more mentorship, support for team science and maintenance of virtual meeting/seminar options after the pandemic.

As a humble contribution to fighting the gender gap in STEM, we would like to use this platform to highlight three amazing female researchers that are breaking through barriers to achieve spectacular careers. We hope these stories will help reinforce the idea that women belong in STEM.

Three women who inspire us (and who should inspire you too!)

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

(TED Talk — ‘A Love Story for the Coral Reef Crisis’ — 2019 — Credit: Ryan Lash)

Dr. Johnson is a marine biologist, author, and policy-writer known for pushing the envelope in climate policy and ocean conservation. Named by Outside Magazine as “the most influential marine biologist of our time”, some of her recent projects include advising the Warren presidential campaign, co-creating the Blue New Deal for reducing carbon emissions through an ocean-based plan, and co-founding a think tank for coastal cities.

Equally passionate about both the environment and civil rights, the Brooklynite can be found breaking ground at the intersection of climate change and racial justice to find solutions rooted in social justice and community building. Throughout her efforts, Dr. Johnson has advocated for women and people of colour to have a seat at every table where decisions regarding climate change are being made.

Dr. Donna Strickland

(Image via the University of Waterloo)

Dr. Donna Strickland, a Canadian optical physicist, was awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 2018, making her only the third ever female-identifying winner of this honour. In her own words, her career has been “playing with high-intensity lasers”. Her groundbreaking work, along with colleague Gérard Mourou, was in developing one of the most powerful lasers ever made. Now, this technology is used across diverse fields, from laser eye surgery to cell phone manufacturing.

Currently, she is a professor at the University of Waterloo, and she has been outspoken about the challenges she faced as a woman to get here. After earning her PhD, she could not find a full-time university position for 8 years, which she says is partly due to the “two-body problem”, an obstacle faced by many women in academia whose careers are put on hold after marriage. Despite this, she has succeeded to be an innovator in the field of laser physics, while bringing visibility to the disparity in this field.

“We need to celebrate women physicists because they’re out there- I’m honoured to be one of those women.” — Donna Strickland.

Dr. Brenda Milner

(Image via Stat News)

Dr. Milner, considered to be the founder of neuropsychology, is said to be one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Born in 1918, she not only pioneered clinical cognitive neuroscience, but also inspired and paved the way for other woman-identifying academics to follow. Having worked out of the Montréal Neurological Institute for much of her career, she has significantly changed our understanding of learning and memory mechanisms in the brain. Additionally, she did much of the early work in defining how the two hemispheres of the brain interact.

As of 2020, Dr. Milner, at age 102, was still working as part of McGill’s department of neurology and neurosurgery to break ground as a senior researcher. Her 7-decade exploration of the human brain was punctuated by obstacles, but her prominence allowed her to transcend them all. Despite being one of few women in her field (or in STEM academia in general) throughout much of her career, she has managed to succeed in becoming one of the most recognized neuroscientists to date. As her colleagues have maintained, with Dr. Milner, it’s always science first.

As the stories of these three pioneers in STEM clearly demonstrate, women belong at every table (and bench top) where decisions, discoveries, and breakthroughs are being made. It is up to leaders in STEM, universities, and the public to support women and girls in their academic journeys- not just during Women’s History Month, but every day of the year. Only then will we finally be able to address the gender inequality in STEM academia, and retain passionate woman-identifying scientists who may go on to make breakthroughs in some of the world’s most urgent problems.

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.