Gender Participation in STEMM Research Careers

Mon, August 23, 2021

Waltman and colleagues https://arxiv.org/abs/2106.12624 surveyed publications to ascertain individuals starting new research careers in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) between 1996 and 2018 as indicated by their names appearing in the SCOPUS data base. The analysis was ‘global’, except it excluded China and India, because of the difficulty of unambiguously distinguishing female and male names. An interpretation of their findings is also provided in an article in Nature by Katherine Sanderson More women than ever are starting careers in science (nature.com).

It is observed that gains were made by women embarking on STEMM careers in all disciplines in 2010 vs. 2000 (except for a small decrease in nursing), but the results also indicate that STEMM is far from monolithic. In a figure developed for the Nature article titled “Differences by Discipline”, it is observed in 2010 that women exceed 50% in nursing, immunology and neuroscience, and were equally as likely as men to have started a research career in biology and medicine, whereas they are represented at about 22% in math, 20% in physics and astronomy, 19% in computer science and 15% in engineering (except for chemical engineering at about 30%.) The percentage increases observed in 2010 vs. 2000 in math, computer science, physics and engineering are in the single digits, indicating the low rates of participation of women in these professions are growing only slowly.

By taking a series of snapshots of individuals who have recently embarked on a STEMM research career, it is apparent that women made continuous gains in STEMM participation from 1996  to 2016, reaching about 40% of new entrants overall, before dropping off slightly in 2018. But these results are especially interesting because they provide a rare opportunity to look across all the STEMM disciplines at the same time. So, one notes that, for what Waltman calls the biomedical and health sciences (BHS), about 56,000 women of 114,000 total entrants (~49%) began a research career in 2010 versus about 18,000 of 81,000 (~22%) in physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics (PCSEM). Apparently many women are taking advantage of their secondary education in math and science, but not so much for a career in PCSEM.

The low participation of women in PCSEM in the U.S. is well known and a frequent subject of concern of PCSEM organizations in the U.S. The Waltman paper does not present a detailed country by country breakdown, but, taken in aggregate, the results indicate this is a global phenomenon, at least for the cohort of countries studied. This is something, perhaps, suspected intuitively, but these data confirm it.

Participation of women in disciplines like physics or engineering is typically considered in isolation and the literature frequently attributes poor participation, at least in part, to an “unwelcoming atmosphere.” But women have a large presence in biology and medicine, indicating a strong interest in at least some STEMM fields. One is left to ponder whether they choose biology and medicine because they feel excluded from physics and engineering or because they prefer biology and medicine. In other words, is it expected that women must have the same participation as men in all STEMM fields or could personal interests dictate otherwise? Certainly, women should be encouraged to consider careers in PCSEM, but achieving parity could be an elusive goal.

Efforts to improve participation of women in math, computer science, physics and engineering, including efforts by the NAE, have been active for decades in the U.S., if not so much globally. The U.S. is a major player in the publication scene, so one may wonder why these efforts have had limited impact on increased participation as measured in this analysis or, in their absence, whether participation might have gotten worse.  

Lance Davis for NAE