Notes on Women in Science

By University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Angie Zeich and Carol Hendrickson

Gender Differences in the Workplace

The low number of women in science careers has historically been a problem that remains pervasive today.  Women still hold proportionally low academic science positions compared to men, and the shortage affects the private sector too, particularly engineering, computer science, and management.  Click here to look at how differences in employment break down by field.  When looking at minority women statistics, the differences are even greater.  An MIT study from the 1990s showed that women science faculty at the university level also faced lower salaries, space, awards, and resources.

To amend these disparities, some universities and businesses have adopted controversial affirmative action policies.  After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a series of court cases determined that affirmative action is legal as a remedy for past discrimination so long that it is narrowly tailored.  Universities and firms cannot use quotas or “set asides” to recruit and hire women.  However, sex may be used as a “plus factor” in hiring.  In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court expressed that in the future, there will be a legal sunset for affirmative action policies.  Once past discrimination has been remedied, affirmative action will no longer meet legal standards.  When this will occur remains questionable.  Not all gender differences in science are due to discrimination, however.  There is no clear consensus on why more women do not pursue science careers.

Women, not only in science, often point to how family-work conflicts impact their lives differently than men.  In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which expanded Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include pregnant women.  This act made it illegal to fire or refuse to hire a woman for being pregnant.  The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act mandated firms to offer 12 weeks of job-protected pregnancy leave.  However, more often than not, this leave is unpaid.  Canada and Europe, on the other hand, have much longer job-protected leave with pay and benefits.  Maternity leave affectively makes women more expensive than men to employ.  Therefore, some countries, such as Sweden, have policies allowing men to take job-protected paternity leave as well.  Click here to read about how other countries are managing the increase of women in the workplace.  Family commitments do not end after childbirth, and governments and firms can do much more to expand childcare services, such as subsidies to low income families.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has boosted child tax credits and increased funding for child care development.  Some schools have lengthened the school day to accommodate working mothers.  Chicago Public Schools has considered year round schooling and has begun a year round pilot program for more than a quarter of its students.

Though parenting does affect a woman’s career, and much more can be done to equalize gender differences in the workplace, the question remains why women are employed at relatively lower rates in science compared to other fields.  Why do you think less women engage in science related employment?  Join our discussion at the Women in Science Symposium.