Women in Science

The history and present status of women in science are of interest to sociologists because of the longstanding disparities in women’s and men’s relative rank and levels of productivity in science, but also because of the male domination of the sciences as a whole. A range of psychological, structural, and cultural explanations have been developed to explain these circumstances and a whole plethora of initiatives and schemes have been implemented to redress the gender imbalance within science. Disparities nevertheless remain and their entrenchment is the subject of continued theoretical and empirical debate.

Women have not always been a minority within science. As Carolyn Merchant has demonstrated, the scientific revolution was premised upon the formal exclusion of women from the new institutions of science. Wise women and midwives were persecuted and ”well-born” women intellectuals were confined to the home as the division between public and private life intensified. At the same time, dichotomies between mind and nature, reason and feeling, and male and female hardened. Great women scientists like Christine de Pizan (1365-ca. 1430) and Laura Bassi (1711-78) were nevertheless rediscovered in the 1970s as second wave feminists took up their predecessors’ quest to show that women can do science just as well as men. They also concentrated their attention on the barriers to women’s achievement in science, spawning a rich and diverse literature on the history and culture of science at a time when women were entering science at a rapid pace. As Schiebinger notes, by 1995, 23 percent of US scientists and engineers were women. Yet it also became apparent that women’s fortunes in science wax and wane according to the political and economic climate as well as the development of scientific institutions. Progression is far from linear.

There are copious amounts of empirical evidence to demonstrate that girls excel in science in the right context but that women drop out of science at each and every significant transition throughout the typical scientific career. Women are more likely to be found in low status, insecure jobs, and to devote themselves to the least valued aspects of academic life, particularly teaching. This means that their record of research fundraising is not as good as men’s and, relatedly, their publication rates and their promotional prospects are worse. The glass ceiling has become something of a cliche but there is no doubt that it is very real. The proportion of female professors in the sciences is minuscule, and the rate of increase is far lower than the increases in women gaining PhDs in the sciences.

As Mary Frank Fox has convincingly argued, the organizational context of science is fundamental to these gender inequalities. Women are least likely to succeed in organizational contexts where the criteria of evaluation and assessment are informal and subjective. In environments where their contribution is not actively encouraged, they participate less in policy discussions and collaborative enterprises. The individualistic culture of some science departments means that graduate education in particular is essentially ”privatized” and it is in this type of environment that implicit norms of masculinity flourish, and those who ”look like” those currently in positions of authority are privileged. What Knorr-Cetina has called the ”epistemic culture” of science, sustained in part through the secrecy and informality of many peer review mechanisms,   privileges   already established scholars and those like them, and marginalizes female and other minority groups as ”the other.”

Women’s domestic situation is also crucial to their success in science. The long hours culture of science does not suit women’s double burden of paid work and unpaid domestic labor.

The widespread and entrenched cultural belief that women have prime responsibility for child care and the tendency for a woman’s career to take second place to that of her husband are other obvious contributory factors. On a more positive note, women’s marriages also give them access to different networks of influence, and it seems that women who are married to other scientists are more successful than their counterparts.

Of course there is a burgeoning industry of psychological research and pseudo scientific speculation in the wider culture which offers reductionist and essentialist explanations of women’s lack of success in science. Differences in women’s and men’s patterns of speech, sociability, cognitive processing, visual-spatial ability, and levels of aggression have all been deployed to explain women’s underrepresentation in science. These have been convincingly debunked by proponents of the ”gender similarity hypothesis,” whose meta analyses have shown that women and men are more alike than they are different, except in a few largely inconsequential characteristics like the ability to throw objects long distances. As authors such as Janet Shibley Hyde have pointed out, there is a high cost to the prevailing cultural emphasis on gender difference, as it undermines women’s sense of their ability to succeed in the workplace (and men’s sense of their ability to nurture). Low expectations of girls’ and women’s mathematical ability and scientific prowess undermine their confidence and perpetuate inequalities. In short, stereotypes matter.


  1. Etzkowitz, H., Kemelgor, C., Uzzi, B., & Neuschatz, M. E. (2000) Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Fox, M. F. (2001) Women, Science, and Academia: Graduate Education and Careers. Gender and Society 15, 5 (October): 654-66.
  3. Hyde, J. S. (2005) The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist (September): 581-92.
  4. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Pergamon, Oxford and New York.
  5. Merchant, C. (1982) The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper & Row: San Francisco.
  6. Schiebinger, L. (1999) Has Feminism Changed Science? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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