Women in Science: A natural sciences perspective

Birthe B. Kragelund, Professor, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, bbk@bio.ku.dk, Sine Lo Svenningsen, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. sls@bio.ku.dk. Stine Falsig Pedersen, Professor, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, sfpedersen@bio.ku.dk

As proponents of a more balanced proportion of men and women in the natural sciences in Denmark, it is easy to be seen as overreacting crybabies who have nothing to complain about, and who really just want favoritism in the name of equal rights. Because, as we all know, Denmark is at the forefront of equal opportunities. Wrong. Quite wrong, and probably more than most people are aware of. The purpose of this short piece is to put the gender statistics in the natural sciences in Denmark into a global/European perspective. The data presented will illustrate that Denmark lags behind the European average in essentially all the ways one can categorize the representation of women in the natural sciences. In addition, we will highlight some of the current numbers specifically from Denmark, on, e.g., gender balance in scientific recognition. We will end with a brief section substantiating our view that a more balanced gender representation in the natural sciences is worth fighting for, outline some of the major challenges, and point to some overall categories of actions we think would be valuable steps toward a solution.

Gender equity in the natural sciences: Denmark in a European perspective

Globally, Denmark is often viewed as a Mecca for equal opportunities between men and women and our country was recently placed 10th best on the United Nation Gender Inequality Index (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/gender-inequality-index-gii). However, in science, the numbers tell a rather different story. In the following, we have taken advantage of the most updated version of the most authoritative European source on gender statistics in the sciences, the so-called “She-Figures 2012” (Gender in Research and Innovation – Statistics and indices, 2012) from the European Commission [1].

What is the problem? Climbing the career ladder

The widely known “scissors” diagrams illustrate how male and female scientists proceed through the academic system. Figure 1a shows such a figure based on European numbers, and Figure 1b shows the corresponding numbers from a recent report from the Danish Research Council on gender in academia [2]. These numbers clearly illustrate at least two points of importance. Firstly, on average across Europe, there is a massive loss of females compared to males as one proceeds through the academic ranks, and only ~20% of full professors are women (in Denmark only ~15%). Secondly, while the difference is not substantial, Denmark is nonetheless below the European average in terms of gender equality at the higher career stages. This fact will also be apparent in later figures. Not surprisingly, if one focuses on the natural sciences, the fraction of females is consistently lower throughout the career path, but the pattern is much the same – the blades of the scissors are just more widely opened [1].

Figure 1. Scissors diagrams illustrating the percentages of females and males at different career stages in a typical academic career. a). European averages. Redrawn from [1]. b). Danish averages. Redrawn from [1] and [2]. The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) identifies specific educational levels: ISCED 5 – Undergraduate and Masters; ISCED 6 – as “tertiary programmes which lead to the award of an advanced research qualification” (UNESCO, 1997). Education programmes such as PhDs and their equivalents are included in this level for all countries, as well as some post-doctoral programs and, in a few cases, some shorter post-graduate programs that are a pre-requisite for the Doctorate (for example the D.E.A. in France). PhD/Doctorate or equivalent graduates. Grade C: The first grade/post into which a newly qualified PhD graduate would normally be recruited. Grade B: Researchers working in positions not as senior as top position (A) but more senior than newly qualified PhD holders (ISCED 6). Grade A: The single highest grade/post at which research is normally conducted (full professors)

If we compare the numbers for the fraction of women at various career stages across countries, this pattern – and, importantly, Denmark’s position in the European/global landscape – becomes more evident. Figure 2 (left panel) shows the proportion of women in Grade A academic positions (corresponding to full professors) across Europe, the US, and Japan. As seen, first of all, the fraction of such positions occupied by women is low throughout Europe, with an average of 18-20%. Second, the corresponding number in Denmark is 15%, well below the European average (but fortunately substantially up from 2002). Figure 2 (right panel) shows the fraction of institution leadership positions held by women in the Higher Education Sector. Here, the European average is 15.5%, and the corresponding number in Denmark is 14.4%. That sounds quite decent (at least on a relative scale!) – but only until one looks at the top of the graph and sees our sister countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland at 32, 27, 25, and 20%. Why is the fraction of female institution leaders more than twice as large in Norway as in Denmark? Why is Denmark lagging so much behind the rest of Scandinavia?

Figure 2. Percentage of women professors (left panel) and female institutional heads in the higher education sector (right panel) across Europe. Data details: Left panel. Exceptions to the reference years: 2002: NL, UK, NO: 2003; HR: 2008; IL: 2006; 2010: CZ: 2008; DK, FR, CY, AT, PT, RO, SE: 2009; EE: 2004; LT: 2007; SK:2011; UK: 2006. Data unavailable: EL, IE, MT, PL, MK, JP, US. Data estimated: EU-27, EU-25, EU-15 (by DG Research and Innovation), SI. Others: Head count. NO: before 2007 biannual data.. Source: WiS database (DG Research and Innovation). Data details (right): Exceptions to the reference year: PT: 2012; SK: 2011; SE: 2008; HR: 2009. Data unavailable: IE, EL, ES, MT, PL, SI, UK, MK, JP, US. Data estimated: EU-27 (by DG Research and Innovation). LU: only one university. Source: WiS database (DG Research and Innovation). Redrawn from [1].

Other thought-provoking information comes from considering some of the major recognitions and awards granted by large Danish funding bodies in recent years. From two of the largest private funding bodies in Denmark we extract the following self-explanatory numbers: Zero out of 24 Lundbeck Nordic Research prize winners in the period 1987-2010 were female (http://www.lundbeckfoundation.com/Nordic-Research-Prize.140.aspx) and only two out of 67 Novo Nordic prize winners in the period 1963-2013 were female (3%) (http://www.novonordiskfonden.dk/en/content/novo-nordisk-prize). Does this reflect differences in innate ability? We do not think so.

Discrimination or free choice?

Overt discrimination against women still exists in academia, at least globally. Examples are the now-famous statements made by ex-Harvard President Larry Summers on the innate differences in aptitude between men and women (http://www.harvard.edu/president/speeches/summers_2005/nber.php), and arguments such as those put forward by Peter Lawrence, Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, suggesting that the different numbers of men and women in science can be ascribed to innate differences in competencies and choices between the genders [3].

In our view, there is generally little overt discrimination against women left in academia in Denmark today, and what’s left is rapidly dying out as the younger generations of males replace those that grew up when the image of women as less qualified was more prevalent. However, robust evidence, also from our part of the world, testifies to the existence of subtle, perhaps even unconscious, discrimination. This includes the classical study by Wennerås and Wold [4] documenting that postdoc grant applications by female scientists were scored substantially lower than those submitted by male scientists with the same scientific qualifications. Astonishingly, a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to achieve the same score on her application. While this study dates several years back, and things have hopefully improved, other studies show a similar pattern.

On a more global scale, disturbingly, a recent study published in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci USA provided solid evidence that science faculty rated an application from a female student much lower than that from a male student, on multiple parameters – despite the fact that the application was identical, the only difference was the name, and thus apparent gender, of the student [5]. Another recent study demonstrated that elite male faculty in the life sciences were substantially less likely to hire and train women than men [6].

Finally, in Denmark, a consistent underrepresentation of women among applicants for tenure-track positions, compared to their representation among PhD-holders (e.g. Table 17 in [7]), suggests that another reason for the gender bias among tenured university staff is that many women simply do not apply for the positions. Do experiences of subtle discrimination, as exemplified above, deter female scientists from pursuing an academic career? Or is an academic career not considered an attractive option by a large fraction of the female Doctorates for other reasons? If so, we need to ask why.

And so what?

While the evidence presented above should make it abundantly clear that there is a big gender gap at the faculty level throughout academia in Denmark, and that it is especially evident in the natural sciences, the next obvious question is of course, does it matter? In our view, there are several important reasons that the answer to this is a resounding yes.

Firstly, we find it substantiated by solid evidence that while conditions have improved, a bias against women still exists in academia. Based on a simple principle of justice this demands a change. Secondly, under the (solid evidence-based) assumption that men and women are equally competent, the loss of women from the university sector after their PhD- or postdoctoral training means a brain drain that the universities, and society, cannot afford. Thirdly, it has long been clear that diversity is a major factor increasing team success and innovation (e.g. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/diversity-work-group-performance). Also relevant for this discussion, recent cutting-edge research on Gendered Innovation (http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/;http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/gendered-innovations/index_en.cfm) builds on increased understanding of the essential impact of sex (biological) and gender (societal) as a factor in creativity and innovation.

Figure 3. Gender distribution 50:50. Source: The Grand Narrative. Korean feminism, sexuality and popular culture. http://thegrand­narrative.com

What will help?

This is not an easy question to answer, but of course it helps to first identify the roots of the problem. As we have outlined above, our view is that there is not one problem, but a complex array of problems, ranging from obvious and easily quantifiable injustices to more subtle, or even unconscious, biases and beliefs in both men and women. Indeed, that many women decide to leave an academic career contributes even further to the complexity of the problem portfolio and distinctly highlights the low attractiveness of academia as a workplace for women (and men?). Societal factors, placing most of the family responsibility with women, and direct discrimination against women certainly do not promote gender equity. Actions within all of these categories can and should be considered.

Firstly, there is the option of initiatives such as gender-specific research grant programs, and quotas for hiring female researchers. Since these are dealt with by other articles in this special issue, we will not discuss in detail the pros and cons of such programs. However, our view is that while they should be used carefully, such programs have their role, not to favor women, but to give them chances corresponding to those of their equally – but not more – qualified male colleagues. An often-used argument against programs aimed at increasing the fraction of female researchers is that such programs will increase mediocrity in academia. An interesting assumption, since, given that women and men are equally intelligent, the logical conclusion of accepting this premise would be that there must be a substantial fraction of mediocre men in the current system.

Secondly, if women do not consider academia an attractive work environment, it is in the very best interest of the universities, for the reasons outlined above, to start implementing changes that will make it more attractive. Incidentally, we are convinced such initiatives will also increase the desire of the most talented young male scientists to pursue an academic career. One often-quoted challenge for academic professionals (increasingly of both genders) is the difficulty of combining a successful scientific career with a lifestyle that leaves room to establish a family and take care of children. Academia cannot solve this alone. Since more than 80% of the parental leave in Denmark is taken by women (2012 numbers, see [8]), it is in part a political task to implement new strategies to make it more attractive for parents to share the parental leave more equally, but it is certainly also financial and strategic planning in the universities themselves that must secure increased research support to both men and women on parental leave.

Such a step was recently taken at the Department of Biology, at the University of Copenhagen, which now offers postdoctoral support during extended parental leaves for tenured or tenure-track faculty members of both genders, in an attempt to ensure continuity in the research program during the absence of the principal investigator. Thus, actions can and should be taken at multiple levels and both in the universities themselves and in society. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. The effects of many such actions have been investigated scientifically, and best practices recommended. Such evidence-based insight into the impact of various gender balance initiatives in academic institutions can be found e.g. at http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/institutions/solutions.html.

Conclusions and outlook

Gender imbalance remains obvious in the Danish higher education system, lagging substantially behind the rest of the Nordic countries. Have things improved? Certainly. If we look 10 years back in the statistics, the imbalance was even larger, and discrimination was overt. Have we achieved gender equality? Not at all. Is the development going sufficiently fast? In our view – no.

Citing the recently published “Global Gender Gap report” from the prestigious World Economic Forum (http://templatelab.com/global-gender-gap-report/), and the latest European Commission report on progress on gender equity [9], we are miles years away from an equal (50:50) gender distribution in the top boards of large, publicly listed companies in the EU, and there is no evidence that this should be any different in academia. This means that another several generations of Danish girls will not have equal opportunities, that our innovative capacity will not be fully exploited, and that the Danish universities will continue to experience a brain drain we cannot afford.


[1] The European Commision. She Figures 2012 – Gender in research and innovation. Statistics and indicators. 2013.

[2] C. Bloch and D. Henriksen. Køn og forskning i Det Frie Forskningsråd. 2013.

[3] P.A. Lawrence, Men, women, and ghosts in science. PLoS. Biol. 4 (2006) e19.

[4] C. Wenneras and A. Wold, Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature. 387 (1997) 341-343.

[5] C.A. Moss-Racusin, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, and J. Handelsman, Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 109 (2012) 16474-16479.

[6] J.M. Sheltzer and J.C. Smith, Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 111 (2014) 10107-10112.

[7] I.o.V.u. Ministeriet for Forskning. Forskerrekrutteringen på universiteterne 2010-2012 (Notat). 2014.

[8] Danmarks Statistik. NYT fra Danmarks Statistik: Dagpenge ved fødsel 2013. 2014.

[9] The European Commision. Commission staff working document: Report on Progress on equality between women and men in 2013. doi 10.2838/99964. 2014.

This article was published in BioZoom no. 4 2014 and again in BioZoom no. 1 2018, which celebrated BioZoom’s 20 year anniversary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s