American Women Continue to Lag in STEM Research

Photo Credit: via UNL Today
Mary Anne Holmes (Photo Credit: via UNL Today)

By Re

Women earn an increasing share of STEM degrees at all levels, but the corresponding number of both female faculty and women-led research vessels in the ocean sciences remains staggeringly disproportionate.

While 57 percent of STEM undergrads are women, and 56 percent of bachelors, about 53 percent of masters and about 45 percent of doctoral degrees are earned by women, according to The National Science Foundation (NSF), just 20 percent of women are at the professor level, 30 percent at the associate professor level and 40 percent at the assistant professor level. Likewise, women researchers on the ground are few and far between.

“Ocean-going research is rewarding, but hard and time-consuming. It entails extended periods of time on sea (up to five weeks), 24/7 work in usually harsh environments, very limited means of communication with land and very little play. [The] proportion of women chief scientists aboard research cruises (those are scientists that lead the whole team of people during the cruise) is lower than the overall proportion of women in professorship positions at universities,” said Ivona Cetinić, research oceanographer at USRA/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Ocean Ecology Laboratory, who studies phytoplankton ecology. “The role of chief scientist is highly associated with successful funding—meaning, who has the money tends to be the boss. It might be that the lower success rate of proposals submitted by women is reflected in low numbers of women chief scientists. And in the end, similar to academic environments, ship-going research was not build around the idea of women going to sea. Although we have evolved a long way from the days a captain of a research ship didn’t want to shake a woman researcher’s hand, certain crew members aboard research vessels are still uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being the lead of the cruise—and, even worse, pregnant or lactating women being part of the lead of the science party. The whole idea of pregnancy and lactation is finally now being addressed within the US University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS).”

Professor of practice emerita at University of Nebraska—Lincoln and author of Women in the Geosciences, Mary Anne Holmes, recalls being at sea in the ‘90s—a time, she said, was difficult for women to take a gig on a research vessel.

“Women were banned from being on ships during and after WWII. The men who returned from naval service after WWII, and more or less founded modern oceanography, were used to things being this way,” she said. “Women are ‘bad luck’ on a vessel. I am not kidding, scientists have cited luck. And when that silly argument was challenged, we fell back on ‘bathrooms’—that old canard that’s still being trotted out to promote gender inequity. Life on a ship is a very macho culture, even today. I know of one research cruise where a lot of hooking up was taking place, and the lead scientist called everyone to a meeting and told the women to ‘keep their pants zipped.’”

Holmes delved into the field of oceanography, studying clay minerals and their responses to varying climates, after joining her then-fiancé on a trip.

“I found soil science challenging as a woman. I was not headed where I wanted to be. I left a PhD program and joined my fiancé where he was studying paleontology for a PhD at Florida State. I served as my husband’s field assistant one summer, traveling all over the West. I thought that was a lot more fun than staying home all summer watering plants for experiments, so I changed fields. Turns out, what I knew about soils and clays was not well-known among the geologists I met up with, and found I could solve geologic problems with that knowledge. My advisor knew the most about these at Florida State University and he was heavily involved with the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP). I got a berth on one of the first ‘cruises’ for DSDP’s replacement and that hooked me into studying marine sediment,” she said.

Eventually, with her unique experiences, she began teaching oceanography in Nebraska and became a delegate to the Lincoln Chapter of the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) for several years, elected as President in 2000 for a three-year term. She works with the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), serves on the American Geophysical Union’s Honors and Recognition Committee and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Nomination Committee for geology and geography, as well.

When serving on the AWG Foundation Board, Holmes learned about NSF’s launch of the ADVANCE program, whereby NSF funds researchers to systematically identify and provide testable solutions for barriers to women becoming faculty in science, math and engineering departments at colleges and universities, in 2001. She was later awarded the first ADVANCE grant after submitting a proposal with Suzanne O’Connell, professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University.

Where are the women geoscience professors? This was Suzanne’s title; it arose from an evening we’d spent at a conference drinking beer and asking ourselves this question: Where were all the women we were undergrads with?” she explained.

The answer: They’re either not practicing science because they’re not being hired to, or they’re doing so for far less pay than their male counterparts.

The gender pay gap in STEM is partly because of women’s absence in higher paying senior positions, but also perhaps a result of the cultural phenomena that women simply don’t ask for raises. Cetinić said that might have a lot to do with the lack of role models and mentors who tell young female scientists to negotiate pay.

“For example, in my grad school, when I started the program in 2004, there was not a single woman tenured professor. I was lucky to be mentored during my postdoc by a powerful and amazing woman, but those are, still to this day, hard to find,” Cetinić said. “Oceanography tends to be, still to this day, dominated by white male scientists. Although there is a visible increase in women (and other minorities) in the field, while on the meetings and conferences (especially those that are heavier on the ocean observation and physics), I tend to be one of several, and very often only, women in the room.”

And while new generations of ocean scientists are evermore replete with support for women, Cetinić noted, “Occasionally, one will bump into an ‘old school’ oceanographer who just doesn’t get it. For example, a long time ago, when I was in undergraduate school in Croatia, I was told that women should not be hired in labs that do intense ocean-going research, because they either have a period or they are pregnant (that person has retired since). But it is the whole system that is built with the idea of scientists being male bread-winners (as is the idea of a tenure track for professorship).”

Cetinić suggested that the solution to the gender gap is in the hands of both higher-ranked scientists, male and female, who should proactively work on ridding the industry of the gender bias on all levels—conference speakers, professor hires, chief scientists, and work places that must become more family-friendly and offer benefits like paid parental leave that make it easier for women to take the work. That will lead to a new generation of powerful women ocean scientists, which will be able to mentor generations to come, she said.

Ivona Cetinić sits with son Veles on a Rhode Island beach after her four-week research cruise aboard R/V Endeavor (in background) in summer 2014. Photo Credit: Via
Ivona Cetinić sits with son Veles on a Rhode Island beach after her four-week research cruise aboard R/V Endeavor (in background) in summer 2014. (Photo Credit: via

“The institution that has no flexibility in achieving tenure, no childcare, no eldercare, no means of holding search committees responsible for their outcomes, that institution is sexist and is making it harder for women to succeed at STEM,” Holmes added.

Holmes explained that women often had similar stories as to what was holding them back in the field.

“The one woman in the department, outright discrimination, a subtle feeling that something was just not right, being second-guessed, having to do more to prove one’s worth, etc. The causes appeared similar: not getting an interview after applying for a job, getting the job but being burdened with extra service work, such as mentoring and serving on the committee for every female student in the department, finding that their letters for tenure bids or award nominations were not getting them tenured/awarded,” she said. “Women not getting the interview, time after time after time, is probably not because no woman ever has the qualifications for the job. There is instead probably some communal way that existing faculty approach their evaluation of applicants. Women not getting tenure time after time is not because no women ever performed to expectations, et cetera. It just cannot be the case that every woman sucks at science and engineering while most men don’t. You can tell by how math tests were showing less and less differences between men and women as teachers began to pay more attention to this.”

While research shows that noisy agitation incites action, Holmes said that she hopes the world won’t need more reasons to pay attention to absence of women in STEM.

“I hope we don’t need to keep having Treyvon Martins to keep our eyes on dismantling racism in this country, and I hope we don’t need to keep having harassment and abuse scandals to keep our eyes on dismantling sexism…We just have to keep pointing out what needs fixing and not give up,” she said.