Why scientists think there are more women in biology than physics

In a recent piece on The Huffington Post, James Gentile writes about a paper I published with Anne Lincoln and Cassandra Tansey called “Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science.” The paper explored why there are vast differences in the proportion of women in different science disciplines—and what scientists themselves feel accounts for these differences. Why, for example, would 81 percent of female scientists be found in only three disciplines—psychology, social sciences, or life sciences (such as biology) as the National Science Board found in 2006? Why are there many more women in biology than in physics?

To try to answer these questions, we turned to a survey of 2,500 biologists and physicists (both men and women) at elite U.S. research universities and 150 one-on-one interviews that we conducted as part of a larger study, Perceptions of Women in Academic Science, which examines how male and female biologists and physicists in the U.S. differ with regard to important influences in their science career. As part of that study, we asked scientists how they would explain the different proportions of men and women in biology and physics. Do women have more natural ability in biology than physics? Do they just prefer it? Is there more funding for women in biology? Or do they face less discrimination in biology? Are there more mentors for women in biology? Or is it something else altogether that accounts for the difference?

Gentile does a nice job of highlighting one of the key findings of our research. Both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a factor in women deciding to choose biology over physics. Approximately half of all the scientists we interviewed thought that, at some point during their education, women are discouraged from pursing a career in physics. However, during interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in the physical sciences likely took place in primary school. Female scientists, on the other hand, believe they still face discrimination once they are working in university science departments.

But I want to paint a more detailed picture of how gender, individual choices, and stereotypes can combine to determine where women end up in academic science. We find that specific disciplines are typed as more closely related to emotional labor, and thus more feminine. The scientists we studied linked biology to feelings (their own and those of their research subjects) and more concrete concepts, and they associated physics with hard, abstract math—even though most scientists in both disciplines do basic research that involves a lot of math. One female physics professor told us she thought “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.’” In our sample, both male and female scientists connected women’s higher representation in biology to the perceived emotional content of biological research.

Yet many male scientists also seem to think the mathematical nature of physics may make it less suitable for women. For instance, one graduate student in physics told us, “Physics is more difficult for girls and you need a lot of thinking, and the calculation, and the logic. So that’s maybe hard for girls.” Another male scientist suggested that “some brain differences” explain the gender differences between physics and biology. An assistant professor of physics told us there were “morphological differences and biological differences” that make men better at math and physics.

Women, for their part, were more likely to say discrimination determined gender differences between the disciplines than they were to point to innate differences. And female scientists in both disciplines believe that women in physics face more structural discrimination, and feel it more acutely, than women in biology.

These findings call for some immediate changes. For one thing, if women highly value scientific labor that has a practical application that benefits society, one way to attract more women to physics research might be to stress its social benefits more effectively in early physics education. Further, at the university level, few male scientists seem to fully realize the present discrimination that women in science face. This is especially problematic in physics, where men hold a much larger share of senior faculty positions. Our findings suggest that discrimination is not adequately being addressed in physics departments at top universities. And since most science disciplines remain male-dominated, the ultimate conclusion is this: in many ways, making academic science more welcoming and encouraging for women still depends on the men. If we want to implement programs designed to create an environment conducive to the scientific success of women, the support of their male colleagues will be crucial.

By Elaine Howard Ecklund, Autrey Professor of Sociology, Rice University

9 thoughts on “Why scientists think there are more women in biology than physics

  1. This is very interesting!

    Way back in 1971-3 I undertook the first research into women academic scientists in the UK and even back then – despite the protests of some respondents and some reviewers – this nurturative aspect came through strongly. (At that point only about 1% of women scientists holding posts in UK universities were women…. and interestingly a very significant proportion of all the scientists I studied had fathers who were, or were married to, scientists.)

  2. Not in all countries is physics male dominated. In Italy there more women than men in physics. Would be interesting to investigate the reasons of such difference. Another point is also the gender distribution within one type of sciences. For instance, in France, there are more en more women in biological sciences. Yet upper positions are still male dominated and women tend to remain at the bottom of the pyramide as well as confined to the less valued tasks. The same is true social sciences – especially sociology. They are clearly women dominated. However almost all of the top positions are held by men…

  3. Actually men are currently the minority in most fields of university these days. Women are the ones who have the advantage now, with the majority of students being female, and a plethora of women-only funding resources and scholarships. Believe it or not, it’s time to start supporting men again, women are back in business and dominating. Where are the male-only scholarships for fields such as education where 90% of grade school teachers are now female??? Where are the male-only scholarships for the arts, where men are discriminated against for taking subjects that are too “feminine” and ridiculed?
    Long story short, physics is one of the last bastions men have where women aren’t in the vast majority. Women have already taken over biology, now you want them to take over physics too? It’s time to put down the pitch forks and realize, women, you did it. You won. Now that you have the power, please use it responsibly and don’t stomp out men completely from academia.

  4. They choose biology, because they easily get a job there, with men being discrimi ated in the field and no one adressing that. Seven years of study, only to hear people saying at a job interviews: ” you have been obviously studying hard, but women are betterbin lab work”

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