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A Review of the Literature on Barriers Encountered by Women in Science Academia

By Tripp-Knowles, Peggy | Resources for Feminist Research, Spring/Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

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.

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