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The Magnifying Glass Ceiling: The Plight of Women in Science

Scientists frequently reference a quote attributed to Einstein: “You do not truly understand something unless you can explain it to your grandma.” Whether or not these words were actually Einstein’s, they’ve been used again and again to encourage students to explain highly technical details in a simple way so that even your grandma could understand it. The assumption is that your dear old grandma is a feeble-minded lady who doesn’t know anything about phishing or bitcoin or Bayesian statistics.

What’s interesting here is that it’s always your grandma you’re asked to explain things to, not your grandpa. This subtle difference seems innocuous, but it reflects the age-old stereotype that men are more competent than women in math and science. Luckily, we’ve moved forward from the days when women in science like Rosalind Franklin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Lise Meitner had their ideas overlooked or even blatantly stolen, but the undercurrent of sexism has not disappeared – it has just become subtler.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that the sun is made of mostly hydrogen. Fellow astronomer Henry Norris Russell rejected her work...but then published it four years later. He is still commonly credited for Payne-Gaposchkin's discovery.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered that the sun is made of mostly hydrogen. Fellow astronomer Henry Norris Russell rejected her work…but then published a paper making the same claim four years later. Even though he cited Payne-Gaposchkin’s work, he is still commonly credited with her discovery.

It is true that women are underrepresented in these spheres, but not because women aren’t interested in it or can’t handle the work (for instance, see some grandmas who probably know more than you). Even when women are highly competent in their field of study, their career accomplishments take a backseat to what’s stereotypically a woman’s duty: raising a family.

Take, for instance, the late Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist (certainly the type of grandma you wouldn’t talk down to). Her obituary in the New York Times began:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

The New York Times has since changed the obituary to lead with a mention of Brill’s career, but the original introduction reflects this trend of subtle sexism. The “but” that begins the second paragraph seems to imply that being a good wife or mom is somehow directly contradictory with being a “brilliant rocket scientist”.

Scientists, too, fall prey to gender stereotypes. In a 1999 study, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher Rhea Steinpreis and her colleagues sent faculty members a CV for a fake applicant’s tenure-track faculty position, and randomized whether the applicant had a male or female name. With the same application, the male applicant was more likely to be hired than the female applicant. More than a decade later, nothing has changed; last year, Yale researcher Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues ran a similar study, asking faculty to rate application materials for a lab manager position. Like in Steinpreis et al.’s study, the male applicant was also rated more highly than the female applicant, and was given a higher average starting salary.

Even if women get that coveted lab manager position or tenure-track faculty position, their research may be less likely to be seen by a wider audience. Last year, the popular journal Nature assessed their own inclusion of female perspectives. They found that women made up only 14% of their reviewers, 18% of their profiled scientists in 2011 and 2012, and 19% of Nature‘s Comment and World View articles. Though there tend to be fewer women in STEM fields to review, write, and profile, Nature acknowledges that doesn’t fully explain the lack of female viewpoints included in their publication. In their own words: “There is work to do.”

This lack of visibility and opportunity can be frustrating, and, according to a 2008 Harvard Business School study, it also contributes to women’s decision to leave STEM fields. Recent research from Berkeley faculty Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden found that STEM fields fail to retain women at every stage of their careers, from undergraduate science courses to professorial tenure review. Data collected by the National Science Foundation found that in many fields, like engineering and biology, women make up more than half of undergraduate students, but this number drops off at each transition point, so that at the tenured professor level, women make up only 20-25% of the total. The most women drop out in the transition between receiving a PhD to landing a faculty position.

Why are women leaving in such numbers? We’ve all heard an urban legend about that one old, misogynistic professor in the department who has explicitly stated his belief that women don’t belong in science, but as the majority of male scientists will attest, there are few men who sit in their ivory towers, intentionally barring women from being hired or published. The story is far more complicated. For one, having more women on review boards does not increase the likelihood that more women will be hired or published. In Steinpreis et al. and Moss-Racusin et al.’s studies, women were just as likely as men to rate the male applicant more highly than the female applicant. This underscores the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes; women, too, can believe that men are more competent. And even worse: they take those stereotypes to heart while on the job.

Social psychologists call this phenomenon “stereotype threat.” This occurs when an individual who is a member of a group fears they will confirm a negative stereotype about their group. A classic stereotype threat study by Spencer, Steele, & Claude (1999) found that women performed worse on a math test if told the test was supposed to reflect gender differences than if they were told it did not reflect gender differences. This works with pretty much any negative stereotype; Yeung & von Hippel (2008) found that women who were primed with the stereotype that women are bad at driving were more than twice as likely to hit jaywalkers in a virtual driving game.

Stereotype can affect female scientists' behavior when interacting with male scientists.
Stereotype threat can affect female scientists’ behavior when interacting with their male colleagues.

More recent research suggests stereotype threat has an effect on women’s perception of daily interactions with fellow scientists. University of British Columbia research Toni Schmader and University of Arizona researcher Matthias Mehl had women in science wear microphones that recorded random snippets of their daily conversations. In rating how “competent” women sounded in talking about their own work, the study found that women sounded less competent when speaking with male colleagues than female colleagues. Presumably, this behavior is a result of stereotype threat: women fear confirming the stereotype of “women are bad at science,” and they falter.

In the face of all this, what’s a woman in science to do? The STEM blogosphere has been abuzz with recommendations. Require universities to adopt family-friendly policies to retain women who are dropping out for family reasons. Provide childcare. Make the tenure process more flexible. Do more scientific outreach for young girls. Create support groups for women to foster stronger mentor/mentee relationships. These are all good ideas, and fit an underlying theme: we need to keep current female scientists in their fields, and we need them to recruit more women to join in the future. Subvert the harmful stereotypes about women and STEM fields that girls hear from a young age: make sure Mattel never makes another “Math class is tough” Barbie, or that children’s clothing stores never make another girls’ t-shirt like this. Be the grandma who does the explaining, not the one who needs to be explained to.

janehuJane is a PhD candidate in the psychology department at University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on social cognition and learning in preschoolers. She is also an editor of the Berkeley Science Review. Follow her on Twitter @jane_c_hu, or check out her science blog:


  1. I think that interpreting the presumable Einstein’s sentence:
    “You do not truly understand something unless you can explain it to your grandma”
    as suggesting that your grandma would require a better explanation than, say, your grandpa is in itself sexist and biased. Consider the alternative explanation:
    Your grandma is much more careing and loving than your average grampa, who doesn’t even ask you anything.
    This would reflect another sexist stereotype “women are more affective than men” .
    In fact, the most gender-neutral interpretation of the quote would be, and I like to believe that was Einstein’s intention, to use “your grandma” as a simple example of a friendly laymen audience.
    I suppose the first thing we should do if we really want to get rid of gender stereotypes is to use neutral language, and perhaps more importantly, analyse the performance of individuals independent of their gender group. Nothing more gender biased than that!

  2. We may never be sure what Einstein intended by his grandma quote (or if he even said it!), and it’s definitely possible he meant it nicely — but I agree that even something benevolent could be sexist (see this post by the folks at Scientific American). Neutral language and removing gender-biased analyses could help, but only insofar as we don’t become “gender-blind” – I think ignoring gender also ignores the fact that there are important differences between men and women, especially in how they have been treated historically.

  3. I think you are walking a very thin line in your line of reasoning. Let’s leave out of the discussion the historical differences, because although they exist, you would agree it wouldn’t be fair to blame the men of today for the atrocities of the past.
    Now, if you don’t want to go “gender-blind” as you define it, and you accept that there are intrisic differences between all individuals of both genders, how are you going to defend the common argument that exactly those intrinsic differences make individuals of one gender more fit for a certain task?

  4. When I said there were differences between men and women, I didn’t mean that those differences are necessarily intrinsic. And even if they were, there is so much individual variation that I don’t think it’s fair or meaningful to conclude that all people of one gender have X trait and are therefore suitable/not suitable for a Y task.

    I don’t think this discussion makes any sense if we ignore the history of gender identity. That history is in large part what’s shaped gender differences in the first place; we’ve been socialized to embrace certain characteristics associated with our gender identities. Famous example: how pink is associated with feminine things and blue with masculine. (Check out Smithsonian Mag’s piece on this:

  5. Thanks for this post Jane, it’s an informative compilation for those who may not be familiar with these issues. However, like most blog posts and articles on this topic, it’s heavy on background and light on discussion.

    You do mention some possibilities that would be helpful; subsidized childcare would be a *dream* for most postdocs. Yet even those steps wouldn’t make up for a climate in which the ideas and opinions of women aren’t valued. The bottom line is that the culture of science needs to change. Many people are not willing to accept that.

    The unfortunate implication of the concluding suggestion to be “the grandma who does the explaining” is that women will need to stick it out, put up with systemic disadvantages, and maybe when we’re elderly someone will finally listen. There’s nothing we can do *now*?

  6. Totally agree that the culture of science needs to change — now the problem is how to do that. I think the best (albeit indirect) way would be to keep more women in science so they become increasingly visible, but unfortunately, that takes time. In the meantime, universities are enacting new policies to retain women in science, but respect is difficult to enforce, and ultimately, the culture in the science world is a reflection of greater society. Maybe it’s naive, but I hope that drawing attention to the issue is at least a start.

    Curious to hear your thoughts – what do you think we can do now?

  7. Thanks for your response. I don’t think it’s naive, and I appreciate that attention is being brought to the issue. I readily admit, I don’t have any spectacular solutions hidden away.

    However, I’m not convinced that simply retaining women will improve the situation. There are several professions (for example, public school teaching) that are dominated by women, and yet the positions of power are disproportionately held by men, who enforce their prerogatives. My understanding is that in American society, fields that are dominated by women (teaching, nursing, secretarial work, etc) are discounted and under-appreciated. I.e. increasing the number of females in the workplace has historically caused a depreciation of the field, not an appreciation of womens’ capabilities, fwiw.

    You’re right; many of these issues reflect systemic misogyny within current Western culture, which can’t change overnight. Historically speaking, I’m sure there must be some examples of women breaking into various arenas and gaining respect (even within a limited sphere) that we could learn from. That’s one approach I haven’t read about or seen discussed online. I wonder what a historian of feminism would say about all this.

  8. While I completely agree that gender bias exists and is pervasive (I’m in tech where it is rampant, along with age bias), there is another explanation.

    Women live longer than men and perhaps Einstein’s grandpa was dead, and therefore not available for the asking. It is more likely that a scientist’s grandma is alive than the grandpa.

  9. Perhaps. But why wouldn’t we have defaulted to the gender-neutral “grandparent” (still ageist, but less sexist), or, if we’re talking about people who are alive and in our lives but older, perhaps our parents? The availability of grandmas could certainly be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I wish I had better data to back this up, but a cursory Google search reveals something interesting: “explain to your mom” brings up the same type of results as “explain to your grandma,” whereas “explain to your dad”, much like “explain to your grandpa,” seems to be a non-existent phrase.

  10. The term, ‘grandma’ may have been used, due to a/the person’s closeness to her. Someone I know was once writing a research paper, as a postdoc, and added the name of a co-worker (a PhD student). When his boss asked why her name was there and if she had really worked on it, he failed to convince the boss, and then he asked, “Is it then OK if I also add my grandmother’s name?” This professor’s grandparents were long dead, and he was 55 years old at that time.

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