Women in science.. at the top

by Eszter Hargittai on May 5, 2004

This is a more personal note although certainly related to topics discussed on CT and I’ll add some stats to give it some context. Congrats to my Mom for being elected a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences this week! The Academy has been around since 1825 and in all that time has had a total of eighteen women elected to its membership. The three women elected this week boosted the number up from fifteen. My Mom is only the second female chemist ever to become a member. The Academy altogether has no more than 200 members younger than 70 years old at any one time. (Members 70 or older do not count toward the 200 so there are just less than 300 current living members.)

Apparently the gender ratio is similarly abysmal in the science academies of other countries. Tabulations have shown that although in a few countries (e.g. Norway, Finland) the percentages are a bit higher around a whopping ten percent, among many other countries such as the UK, Germany, Israel, Denmark, France the figure is around four percent.[1] The state of things is especially striking given that nowadays women often make up more than fifty percent of those getting college degrees (although that’s distributed quite unevenly across fields). Sure, it takes time for people to go through the ranks, but a significant number of women have been getting degrees in science for a while yet the pipeline narrows for women at every step of the way from college degrees to graduate degrees to post-docs to assistant professorships to full professorships to membership in science academies.. all the way to the Nobel Prize.

fn1. Joan Mason: “Not much room at the top for women”, Forum, Journal of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, No.8, Autumn/Winter, 1999/2000, p.3.



des 05.05.04 at 4:47 pm

I work in maths, and anecdotal evidence is that Spain is much better than the UK in women moving up the pyramid. (This is setting the bar v. v. low.)

Is that in the tabulation?


eszter 05.05.04 at 4:56 pm

Des, Spain seems to be around (just below) 3%.


Brian Weatherson 05.05.04 at 5:07 pm

Congraulations to Eszter’s Mom!

Is there an easy way to get data comparisons between the % of women at various career stages and % of women graduates at the relevant prior time. (E.g. comparing how many women are full professors to how many women graduated from the relevant departments roughly 20 to 40 years ago, which is when most full professors would have graduated?) My impression is that just looking at the historical graduation rates will give you a _small_ pipeline effect, but would go nowhere near far enough to explain the data, which are largely due I’d imagine to all kinds of systematic and/or explicit discrimination.


jacob 05.05.04 at 5:37 pm

Congrats to your mom, Eszter!

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected its first woman member in 1848–astronomer Maria Mitchell. It elected its second member in 1943.


eszter 05.05.04 at 6:07 pm

Brian, my understanding is that data like this are really hard to come by. In general, I think it’s hard to get stats on the percentage of women in various ranks by field, not to mention have data on their ages. I spent one summer in college working with two computer scientists analyzing some data about women with PhDs in computer science and related fields. Those data had been collected through word-of-mouth (e.g. use of relevant mailing lists, I think) so they were hardly great. But it was the most we could get our hands on. But we didn’t have data for people who stopped before getting a PhD. We were examining the pipeline post-PhD and it was quite dramatic. I guess with science academies, since the membership is relatively small and they’re all high profile with information about their membership, it’s reasonable to get some stats.


chun the unavoidable 05.05.04 at 7:05 pm

I don’t mean to get all Flowers for Harrison Bergeron up in here, but should the children of academics be allowed to become academics? I think of a couple of reasons why not.


h. e. baber 05.05.04 at 8:13 pm

Margaret Rossiter Women Scientists in America which gives a neat account of the difficulties women in the sciences have faced historically is a really good read.

Especially interesting is what she calls “The Madame Curie Effect.” Since Curie had gotten two Nobel Prizes the inference was that “all doors were open to women”–and more generally, that since there was a small percentage of women, rather than none at all, in the sciences it followed that the majority of women were either incapable of doing science or unmotivated.

Maybe this could be added to the list of informal fallacies–argumentum ad mariecuriam.


Elaine Supkis 05.06.04 at 3:10 am

My grandmother, Hanna Pettit, and my mother, Marjorie Meinel, both had to toil hard just to be heard in the world of astronomy. Both married astronomers.

Astronomy has a host, an ARMY of great women scientists who do really great work, and few are recognized for this.

It really steams me.

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