A Review of the Literature on Barriers Encountered by Women in Science Academia
Tripp-Knowles, Peggy, Resources for Feminist Research
A Review of the Literature on Barriers Encountered by Women in Science Academia
Peggy Trip - Knowles Department of Biology/Faculty of Forestry Lakehead University Thunder Bay, Ontario
This review synthesizes the interdisciplinary scholarly literature on barriers facing women in science and presents a new conceptual framework for identifying obstacles. Over 60 articles and books specifically focussing on barriers against women in science were reviewed to develop this framework.
As a first step, the idea that there is a "cumulative disadvantage" for women is underscored as the most commonly cited explanation for women's lesser presence in science academia. Second, organizational frameworks of barriers in the literature are reviewed. Then, a proposed four - category conceptual framework for barriers is presented. First, "systems" barriers represent systems - level biases such as societal stereotypes, and political and economic discrimination; second, "institutional" barriers highlight biases in the institutions of work, education, family and science itself; third, "interpersonal" barriers include biases experienced in personal interactions; and fourth, barriers related to the "self" represent a focus on individual issues surrounding mental health, morale and values.
Finally, a literature review is presented, organized around this conceptual framework and focussing on obstacles encountered by women in each of the following stages of scientific career development: early childhood experience; primary and secondary school level; university level; graduate training level; and faculty level. Of these five developmental stages, the greatest proportion of the literature addresses barriers at the highest level, that of career scientists. The common themes and persistent barriers identified throughout almost all stages of career development include not enough role models for women, stereotypical expectations by society and peers, the "chilly climate" in universities, inadequate teaching methods, and psychological effects of gender inequality (such as low self - confidence). Biases within the institution of science itself constitute further barriers to women. Thus, this framework attempts to focus further attention on the sexist value systems in science and their relationship to gender inequality in the profession.
A Proposed Conceptual Framework
Barriers faced by women in science have been the subject of much attention within both feminist and scientific literature. Anecdotal descriptions, as well as evidence from quantitative and qualitative studies, bear this out. The particular literature to be examined in this article is that portion of the gender and science material found in academic journals and books which emphasizes gender barriers.
The theoretical literature that proposes explanatory models for problems encountered by women in science, and the literature proposing organizational models for barriers are reviewed here. A conceptual framework of barriers based on the four categories as they occur at the developmental stages of early childhood, primary and secondary school, university, graduate training, and faculty levels are discussed. An emphasis on barriers is a minor step in a more complete analysis of gender and science which, in its entirety, moves beyond a "preoccupation with 'victimology"' (Harding, 1991, p. 30).
The most commonly cited explanatory model for women's restricted participation in science is the "theory of cumulative disadvantage" (Clark and Corcoran, 1986; Cole, 1979, 1981; Primack and O'Leary, 1993). This approach reflects the belief that small disadvantages of different types accumulate over time to such an extent that women's success in science can be inhibited. As early as 1979, Cole proposed that such disadvantages may not even be "easily quantifiable" (p. 81). Heward (1994) explores this concept of cumulative disadvantage in academia in general, and claims "there is a lifelong series of processes by which the disadvantages for women in vertically and horizontally segmented labour markets accumulate..." (p. 257).
There are few attempts at organizing specific barriers into a general framework. Work by Weaver et al. (1991) delineates the following three general factors: gender differences in socialization and development, overt and covert discrimination, and social structural barriers. An earlier document prepared by graduate students at M.I.T. cites only two major categories: professional inequality and social inequality (M.I.T., 1983). Acker and Oatley (1993) similarly emphasize two factors, social - psychological approaches and discriminatory educational practices. Rothblum's categorization (1988) designates three general categories: institutional factors, interpersonal factors and psychological factors.
I propose, in this review, an adaptation of these systems, comprised of four categories roughly corresponding to the scope of influences on lived experiences, from the broad societal sphere to the individual. The first category, the "systems" barrier, is the widest in scope, representing biases on a systemic level, including economic or political discrimination emerging from our society's construction of gender roles, particularly pertaining to science (Shepherd, 1993). Second, the category of "institutional" barriers describes a more specific bias expressed within particular institutions, including education, family, work, and even science itself. The inclusion of science as an institution focusses attention on the ideological concerns embedded in science that may have differential impacts on women. Third, "interpersonal" barriers are meant to include biases experienced in personal interactions in both professional and personal relationships. Fourth, are barriers focussing on the level of "self," including those individual issues surrounding mental health and morale. This proposed system of categories has been informed by the diverse literature on barriers against women in science in combination with my experience as a senior woman scientist.
Early Childhood Experiences
The barriers to success for girls and young women in science can be classified under the first three categories: "systems," "institutional," and "interpersonal." "Systems" barriers are encountered when young children are exposed to unequal gender roles, particularly through television. In her review of roadblocks encountered by women in science, Mallet (1992) notes that television's portrayal of the differential power between the sexes contributes to the formation of gender stereotypes.
I have categorized as "institutional" those barriers more specifically related to science as an institution. First, several workers propose that the thinking skills incorporated in the institution of science itself more closely coincide with masculine than feminine developmental processes (Keller, 1985; Mallet, 1992; Rossi, 1965; Schiebinger, 1987). For example those researchers concerned with gender differences in mathematical abilities seen during schooling trace some of those differences to early development. (Other studies on gender equality of mathematical ability will be discussed below.) Rossi proposes that mathematical skill is enhanced by the autonomy and independence encouraged in the development of young boys, while close ties to the mother foster verbal skills in the more traditional experience of young girls. Keller's object relations analysis links objectivity with masculine childhood development and subjectivity with the feminine. Mallet proposes that television programming links the masculine with the intellect and the feminine with the emotional realm. "Scientific thinking," according to Mallet, is more compatible with these masculine characteristics. Furthermore, the gendered toys of young children teach different skills, with more scientifically compatible play associated with boys' rather than girls' activities (Mallet, 1992; Schiebinger, 1987).
Interpersonal" barriers at the developmental stage are generally restricted to interactions with a small number of adults. Rossi notes that as observers of parental relationships, very young children can conclude that men are less involved with people, a trait associated with the stereotype of a scientist. The lack of interaction that children experience with women scientists restricts role modeling. Even women scientists in cartoons are conspicuously absent (Sherriff and Svenne, 1991).
Primary and Secondary School Level
The most commonly reported concern at this life stage is a gender difference in preparation and attendance in maths and sciences within the educational system. I consider this to be an educational "institutional" bias. Several studies indicate that girls tend to avoid physics classes, fall behind in math, and attain lower standardized test scores in the classes needed for a science career (Alper, 1993; Billard, 1991; Brush, 1991; Weaver et al., 1991). Brush even proposes anecdotal evidence that publicity about research on the mental inferiority of females plays a role in diminishing women's success in science at this developmental stage. These gender differences in the literature are attributed to a diversity of causes such as differential teacher expectations (Peltz, 1990; Schiebinger, 1987; Sherriff and Svenne, 1991), conformation to societal stereotypes (Brush, 1991; Frieze and Hanusa, 1984; Holloway, 1993), inappropriate teaching methods (Holloway, 1993; Mallet, 1992), and systemic biases of standardized tests (Billard, 1991; Brush, 1991). Some of these causes, such as conformation to societal stereotypes, are actually more "systemic" in nature. I have categorized them as "institutional" since they are expressed in the educational setting.
In contrast, another survey (Linn and Hyde, 1989) presents the results of particularly thorough and sophisticated multivariate analyses of primary and high school students which indicate either declining gender differences in performance or performance equity in quantitative abilities. Career access to maths and sciences, however, continues to show sizeable and persistent gender differences even though cognitive differences have diminished or disappeared (Linn and Hyde, 1989). Furthermore, high performance measures for maths and sciences are consistently achieved for girls and young women from single - sex classes (Monaco, 1992; Peltz, 1990; Sadker and Sadker, 1994; Sarah et al., 1988), reinforcing the existence of an institutional bias in mixed classes.
We begin to see the common reporting of "interpersonal" barriers in this life stage in the interaction of students with teachers. Hall and Sandler (1982) use the term "chilly climate" to describe instances of gender differences in eye contact, verbal cues, higher order questions and praise on the part of teachers. Such behaviour improves the academic environment for boys at the expense of girls (Peltz 1990). Acker and Oatley (1993) review studies focussing on classroom interaction where boys are shown to dominate. Furthermore, Holloway (1993) underscores the emphasis on competition rather than collaboration in the traditional teaching methods. Such an emphasis may be more unfamiliar to girls than to boys and thus act as a barrier. A final "interpersonal" barrier is actually a neglect of interpersonal interaction, that is, the lack of role models for girls -- in primary school due to the predominance of women as teachers who may be unenthusiastic about science, and in secondary school due to the relative lack of women science teachers (Holloway, 1993).
Finally, a barrier focussing on the "self" emerges at this relatively young stage in the form of low self - confidence (Acker and Oatley, 1993). Robertson (1988) contrasts those psychological traits encouraging success in science with the low self - confidence often found in social - psychological surveys of school - aged girls.
Gender differences in career aspirations encourage women to set career goals later in life than men, and their aspirations often actually decrease during college years (Nichols et al., 1985; Widnall, 1988). Furthermore, new "systems" barriers surface at the university level, such as coeducational trends, economic restraints, and even the physical design of learning space. Also, for example, the decline in number of American colleges for women affects the number of women in science, since a disproportionate number of women scientists have emerged from these institutions (Brush, 1991). Dollar (1991) concluded that, in the U.S., women's colleges provide better learning environments for women in science. Economic restraint policies affect women differently too, in that women are less likely to borrow money for educational purposes (Brush, 1991). The physical design of lab space was found to act as a barrier for women engineering students who had problems with high shelves, and improperly tilted screens (Mallet, 1992).
Among the institutional barriers within the educational system, teaching methods are proposed to be inappropriate for women students who appear to prefer the discursive, cooperative and "discovery" modes of learning not emphasized in mathematics and sciences (Alper, 1993; Lewis, 1991; Rosser, 1990; Tobias, 1990; Widnall, 1988)
The final institutional barrier set within the institution of science concerns gendered value differences in maths and science education. Dagg (1991) proposed that women tend to value attributes such as personal relationships and caring for self which are not as easily expressed in science (Dagg, 1991).
Interpersonal barriers have received substantial attention in the literature for this educational level. The "chilly climate" in the classroom has been documented to include sexist comments and jokes (Dagg, 1991; Dollar, 1991; Mallet, 1992), devaluing women students by commenting on physical appearance, disparaging women's intellectual ability or commitment, or using inequitable terminology (Dagg, 1991; Hall and Sandler, 1982). Research on group dynamics shows differential attention to and from males with respect to body language, eye contact, interruption frequencies, discussion control and discussion length (Hall and Sandler, 1982). Again we see the effects of the lack of interpersonal interaction at this stage stemming from the paucity of role models (Frieze and Hanusa, 1984; Mallet, 1992; Morrell, 1991; Rossi, 1965).
Barriers related to the "self" include the "imposter syndrome" (Widnall, 1988) in which women, because of pervasive sexism, doubt their own achievements and feel inadequate as a result. This is commonly noted among women science students as a sense of anxiety about being "found out" for not being "good enough." This performance pressure, particularly regarding perceived performance, was found to have a significant influence on the likelihood of persistence in education, that is, staying in school (Rogers and Menaghan, 1991). Low self - esteem in women students is influenced by the lack of equal representation of women in science and engineering, as well as the lack of female role models (Dagg, 1991; Mallet, 1992).
Graduate Training Level
At the "systems" level, the barriers mentioned in the literature include economic disparities, and general discrimination and stereotyping in terms of undervaluing the accomplishments and commitment of women graduate students. Women have less access to financial aid than men graduate students (Billard, 1991) and women are more likely to drop out for economic reasons (Dagg, 1991). Widnall (1988) focussed on general societal discrimination factors in her research, finding gender differences in objective evaluations of graduate student accomplishments and potential. Both men and women evaluators undervalued women students' abilities. Community members were also documented to have preconceived notions of women graduate students' commitment as computer scientists (M.I.T., 1983).
The category of "institutional barriers" includes the lower incidence of research assistantships and awards among women graduate students as compared to their male counterparts (Billard, 1991; Dagg, 1991; Frese and Coggeshall, 1991; Hall and Sandler, 1982). Thus, Billard (1991) reports that women tended to come from wealthier families. Another "institutional" barrier concerns family issues. In the family, it has been documented that support for women graduate students is less than that for men (Clark and Corcoran, 1986). Family/work conflicts are noted as particularly difficult for women graduate students, leading to attrition in numbers (Etzkowitz et al., 1994).
Among "interpersonal" barriers, problems surrounding sponsorship during graduate school emerged as predominant. Women graduate students in science reported receiving less attention, knowing fewer faculty members, having less access to informal channels of communication, and experiencing inadequate patronage (Clark and Corcoran, 1986; Hall and Sandler, 1982; Primack and O'Leary, 1993; Scott, 1994; Watson, 1993; Weaver et al., 1991; Widnall, 1988).
There were, as well, the host of issues labeled "chilly climate" in the literature. Women graduate students reported being hindered by harassment, uncomfortable social atmospheres, sexist jokes (Dagg, 1991; M.I.T., 1983), were counselled to lower their career aspirations (Hall and Sandler, 1982), and were subjected to inappropriate treatment by faculty and student colleagues (Widnall, 1988).
At the "interpersonal" barrier level, the adversarial interaction among scientists and even the male communication style is reported as difficult for women (Brush, 1991; Widnall, 1988). Furthermore, Widnall (1988) documents the ways in which women's verbal contributions are more frequently interrupted than those of men, and their ideas neglected. The lack of interpersonal interaction with role models is again mentioned for this stage by Clark and Corcoran (1986).
The most commonly mentioned barrier at the level of "self" in graduate training is that of low self - confidence among women who are studying science. The level of preparation and performance achieved by the relatively few women who make it to this level is indistinguishable from that of their male peers, but the women's self - perceptions of preparation/performance levels differ markedly from the reality of their successes (Clark and Corcoran, 1986; Dagg, 1991; Widnall, 1988). For example, success in graduate school is more often attributed by women to luck, and by men to ability (Weaver et al., 1991).
Lower personal satisfaction (Primack and O'Leary, 1993), and experiences of powerlessness, increased pressure and isolation (Etzkowitz et al., 1994; Widnall, 1988) are commonly reported by women graduate students in science. This isolation can arise from a general discomfort resulting from the lower numbers of women in the workforce (M.I.T., 1983). Dollar (1991) discusses personal stress in the form of the dual role that graduate school presents for women -- that is, not only must women learn the profession, but must also often undergo a transformation in order to conform to the traditional masculine "persona" expected in graduate school. Such a transition is much less commonly needed for men graduate students. The resulting stress clearly affects the career aspirations of women (Clark and Corcoran, 1986).
This life stage is the focus of the greatest proportion of the literature on barriers facing women in science academia. One addition to the "systems" barrier category, not found in the other categories, is the theme of historical sexism, including masculine bias in the inception of the university tradition (Holloway, 1993; Noble, 1992; Sherriff and Svenne, 1991); historical neglect or obfuscation of women's contributions in science (Epstein, 1991; Holloway, 1993; Weaver et al., 1991); and historical segregation of women scientists into the technical level, less prestigious universities, or ghettoized disciplines (Harding, 1986; Rossiter, 1982; Weaver et al., 1991). Such historical factors have a powerful though indirect influence on the current status of women in science academia.
Problems of stereotyping continue in the form of gender - based segregation in the workforce (Weaver et al., 1991), societal discomfort with women scientists as "untypical" women (Ching, 1991; Epstein, 1991; Selvin, 1992) and collegial discomfort with women as "unusual" scientists (Amato, 1992; Rothblum, 1988). Kanter (1977) examines proportionate representations of men and women in the workforce in general. Women scientists can become trapped in stereotypical roles as a result of the tendency of the dominant group (male scientists) to distort the traits of "tokens" in order to fit them into pre - existing moulds. Rogers and Menaghan (1991) develop Kanter's work further by focussing on differing expectations of under - represented people in the work force. "Because they appear different, (numerical) minority group members are treated not as individuals but according to stereotypes surrounding their group" (Rogers and Menaghan, 1991, p. 550).
At the "institutional" level, workplace discrimination is often mentioned with respect to hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions as well as salary levels (Billard, 1991; Caplan, 1992; Cole, 1981; Exum et al., 1984; Frieze and Hanusa, 1984; Morrell, 1991; Rothblum, 1988; Scott, 1990). For example, salary differences by gender were examined for NIH scientists, showing that women earned less than men regardless of seniority or rank (Watson, 1993). Institutional regulations governing nepotism and hiring of one's own graduates are also cited as discriminatory against women (Kauffman and Perry, 1989). As well, women academics have been shown to have less access to institutional resources such as research funds and graduate assistants (Brush, 1991; Scott, 1994). Brush (1991) characterizes these institutional barriers as instances of the "glass ceiling" effect. Value differences within institutional organizations were the focus of attention for Nichols et al. (1985), who propose that the patron system is not as effective for women as either a true meritocracy or collegial democracy would be. Primack and O'Leary (1993) further explored perceptions of discrimination in the workplace to find that more women faculty than men considered men to be favoured in promotion and tenure decisions.
The lack of job security is the final "institutional" barrier included in the framework. Such insecurity affects the permanence of mentoring for women (Primack and O'Leary, 1993; Sherriff and Svenne, 1991), and often creates conditions encouraging the voluntary resignation of women scientists (Rothblum, 1988). Lack of job security was also noted by more women academics than men as retarding scientific productivity (Primack and O'Leary, 1993). That there are many more temporary and part - time women academics than men has been well documented (Primack and O'Leary, 1993; Weaver et al., 1991).
Next, the institution of the patriarchal family influences women's access to science in many ways. Women are more likely to report that family responsibilities hold them back academically, that their spouses do not share equally in domestic work, and that adequate child care is a problem (Amato, 1992; Gornick, 1990; Kahn, 1993; Primack and O'Leary, 1993; Scott, 1994). Women scientists are less likely to be married than men, and less likely to have children (Rothblum 1988). Holden (1993) provides evidence in the discipline of biomedicine that support for women who wish to have a family is nonexistent. Gender differences in productivity are often compared, in reference to family status, but the results are still considered inconclusive (Schiebinger, 1987).
Geographic immobility is another family - related "institutional" barrier affecting women scientists. More women than men have moved in order to accommodate the relocation of a male spouse (Primack and O'Leary, 1993), and more women than men experience limited career opportunities if they are part of a heterosexual dual - career couple (Cole, 1981; Foster, 1993; Gibbons, 1992; Rothblum, 1988; Wake, 1993). Kauffman and Perry (1989) criticize the common hiring practice of considering the relative prestige of the university where an applicant got her degree as a problem for women, particularly with respect to mobility barriers.
The structure of science itself may act as an "institutional" barrier for women scientists. Tobias (1993) focusses on the intense dedication necessary for success in science as a problematic part of the culture of science which differentially affects women. "One of the characteristics of the ideology of science is that science is...something that a scientists wants to do, needs to do above all else and at all costs (Tobias, as cited in Alper, 1993). "One of the main problems for women in science is the failure of the 'culture' of science to adapt to people having outside interests" (Holden, 1993, p.650). Kauffman and Perry (1989) criticize the academic institution of science as a conflict for women attempting to operate in a male value system. Zuckerman (1991) questions differential value systems by scientific subdiscipline when she asks, "Are the cultures of some fields (in science) less consistent with feminine values than others as Keller (1985) and Traweek (1984) imply...?" (p. 55).
Interpersonal" barriers at the faculty level are reflected in the number of citations in the literature, and in women's exclusion from informal channels of communication (Astin, 1991; Brush, 1991; Clark and Corcoran, 1986; Cole, 1981; Holloway, 1993; Schiebinger, 1987; Weaver et al., 1991; White, 1970). Examples include neglecting women as contributors to books, and excluding women from presentations and meetings, or research projects (Caplan, 1992; Holloway, 1993; Selvin, 1992), or from scientific committee work (Barinaga, 1992). In spite of the fact that women are admitted to scientific laboratory settings, they are often excluded from these crucial discussions and social interactions (Brush, 1991).
Chilly climate" concerns are again conspicuous at this career level. Overt and subtle discriminatory practices on the part of male scientists create a chilly climate and include condescension, exclusion, hostility, sexual innuendo, sexist humour, invisibility, negative body language, devaluation and disparaging women's accomplishments or professional commitment (Caplan, 1992; Hall and Sandler, 1982; Weaver et al., 1991; Yentsch and Sindermann, 1992). Again, it is seen that in group dynamics women are interrupted more frequently than men, are less comfortable with antagonistic discussions, and have their ideas more often attributed to men (Holloway, 1993). Bleier (1988) summarizes the effect of the chilly climate by describing the task of women as having to "divert enormous day to day energy from the business of scholarship to that of finding ways to accommodate successfully to the relentless experience of being seen by male superiors and male peers as woman first and serious (academic) second" (p. 8).
The last category, issues concerning the "self," has elicited almost as much attention in the literature as have interpersonal barriers at this highest level of women in science. The psychological barriers differentiating women scientists from men tend to be framed in terms of higher levels of stress among women. Specific stressors include powerlessness, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, and flagging motivation. Women experience more conflict between teaching and research (Hunter and Shannon, 1987), and less satisfaction with professional achievement (Rothblum, 1988). Studies outside the discipline of science also demonstrate this lowered job satisfaction among women (Hill, 1984; Kanter, 1977; Yoder, 1991). Another commonly cited stressor was isolation. Etzkowitz et al. (1994) drew a connection between isolation and low self - confidence as a problem for women in academic science. Rothblum (1988) attributed women's voluntary resignation from science academia to isolation, providing evidence that women value affiliation more than men. Kanter (1977) interprets isolation and its resulting stress as a common experience among token women in the workplace in general. Yoder (1991) reviews the contemporary jargon in the popular press pertaining to the pressures experienced by token women: "Cinderella complex," "imposter phenomenon," and the "fear of success."
Lowered self - confidence was mentioned by Primack and O'Leary (1993), Rothblum (1988) and Selvin (1992); lowered sense of control or powerlessness tended to heighten anxiety (Hunter and Shannon, 1987; Primack and O'Leary, 1993; Rothblum, 1988); discomfort as a result of unsympathetic colleagues and an unsupportive environment was noted (Rothblum, 1988); and a lowered senseof psychological security about their job was particularly noted in women academics (Hunter and Shannon, 1987; Rothblum, 1988). Ironically, psychological syndromes involving both the fear of failure (Rothblum, 1988) and the fear of success (Yoder, 1991) were ascribed to women. Motivational problems include battles with depression experienced by women academics, for example concerning the issue of multiple publication rejections (Kauffman and Perry, 1989).
Finally, I consider value conflicts as an important issue related to the "self" and a source of discomfort for women in science. This area of study is the least well developed in the literature and likely to show the most potential for productive scrutiny. One such conflict concerns gender differences in the meaning of work for scientists. Women feel they have less ownership and sense of control over their work in comparison with men (Astin, 1991). These differences are attributed to both early gender socialization and the unequal structure of opportunity. Furthermore, women tend to value work because of its potential for self - expression and worthwhile contribution, while men more often place a higher value on earning money when making occupational decisions (Cole and Fiorentine, 1991).
This literature review on the barriers facing women in science academia supports the theory of cumulative disadvantage in showing that there are a substantial number and variety of barriers which systematically limit and obstruct women's entry into science, and hinder the opportunities of the few women in science who "make it" to the upper echelons of the profession. Moreover, serious problems have been shown to affect all developmental stages of a woman's scientific career, thus creating a cumulative impact. These persistent barriers which exist in most of the developmental stages of a woman scientist's career include lack of role models, stereotypical and sexist expectations by society and peers, the chilly climate in science academe, inappropriate teaching methods, and the psychological effects of living in a sexist society, such as low self - confidence.
Of the five developmental stages reviewed, the greatest proportion of the literature addresses barriers at the highest level, that of career scientists. This does not necessarily represent the relative concern at lower levels since the search targeted academic journals, the literature most likely to represent scientists' interests.
The four major categories of barriers -- "systems," "institutional," "interpersonal," and "self" -- represent the four different levels of interactions encountered by scientists. The fact that many barriers exist in all these categories of interactions and all developmental stages underscores the ubiquitous character of discrimination encountered by women in academic scientific careers, and points to the need for dramatic and structural change in the field.
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Publication information: Article title: A Review of the Literature on Barriers Encountered by Women in Science Academia. Contributors: Tripp-Knowles, Peggy - Author. Journal title: Resources for Feminist Research. Volume: 24. Issue: 1/2 Publication date: Spring/Summer 1995. Page number: 28. © 2008 O.I.S.E. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.