Thicker glass ceiling in scientific domains dominated by women

News | by Janneke Addema

March 30, 2022 † Women working in imprecise scientific fields experience a thick glass ceiling, despite the high proportion of women in those sectors. This is the result of research by Ruth van Veelen and Belle Derks from the University of Utrecht. In many imprecise sciences, women are in the majority at the student level, but their participation is shrinking up the academic ladder, ultimately leaving them in the minority at the professor level.

Photo: Lehel Mozgaic

Women are strongly underrepresented in the exact sciences, but in non-exact sciences such as the social sciences or the humanities. They make up the vast majority there. However, the male/female ratio in these female-dominated fields differs greatly by academic level, the researchers write.

For example, more than 70 percent of psychology students are women, compared to about 50 percent of college professors in that field. At the level of teachers, the proportion has even been completely reversed and women are in the minority (less than thirty percent). Meanwhile, the male/female ratio in the exact sciences seems much more stable; although only thirty percent of students are female, this differs much less from the proportion of female teachers (around 25 percent).

academic world is up or out

According to the researchers, there is therefore a thick glass ceiling in the inexact sciences. There is a glass ceiling when women have unequal opportunities for advancement, a phenomenon that becomes more and more apparent as one moves up the career ladder in the imprecise sciences. However, due to the high proportion of women in the hard sciences, little attention is paid to the inequality of opportunity in these fields, the researchers write.

Therefore, her research focused on the effect of the glass ceiling on women’s career prospects in the hard sciences. The observation that men are more likely to hold leadership positions and women to remain in lower positions creates the implicit norm that men are better suited to leadership positions, the researchers write. This can make women feel unmotivated or unfairly treated. In addition, the academic world is a up or out world, where not doing a doctorate often means giving up and looking for a job in another field. In this way, the glass ceiling itself also creates more inequality.

The effect of the glass ceiling.

More than 2,000 participants were interviewed in the study. All participants were associate professors or associate professors, just over half of the participants were employed in the wrong field (52 percent), and just under half were women (43 percent). Participants first indicated how high they estimated their chances of becoming a teacher, after which they estimated the male/female ratio at their level. Finally, they were asked for their estimate of the male/female ratio at the highest level.

By asking directly about relationships and not about a participant’s opinion of whether or not there is a glass ceiling, the study avoids any personal viewpoints, the researchers write. Participants with negative personal experiences are more likely to claim that there is a glass ceiling, while other participants prefer to ignore any accusations of sexism.

The researchers also surveyed participants about their direct experiences to objectively reflect any differences in perceptions between men and women. They then linked these perceptions to differences in the participants’ career prospects. This is how the effect of the glass ceiling was determined.

breaking the glass ceiling

Research shows that women in the inaccurate fields perceive a greater difference in the male/female ratio between levels than their male peers. In addition, female participants estimate that their chances of becoming teachers are lower. Furthermore, it appears that female exact science teachers experience a thinner glass ceiling and rate their career opportunities higher than women in non-exact science. This latter group, therefore, experiences a thicker glass ceiling than their male and female colleagues in the sciences, making them more negative about their career prospects, negatively affecting their real chances of becoming teachers.

Researchers point out that women are often held personally responsible for their underrepresentation. According to many, the academic system is meritocratic; promotions are a direct result of one’s achievements, so women’s unequal opportunities are due to a lack of motivation or competence on their part. However, research shows that women in the fields of exact sciences, who experience a thinner glass ceiling, value their career opportunities more highly. Therefore, the research suggests that the professional background of academic women is one of the main causes of inequality of opportunities.

To break the glass ceiling, it is not enough if only a few women are successful, the researchers write. Sometimes women even decide to distance themselves from other women to better fit the assertive role expected of a leader. In these cases, the status quo is maintained and inequality of opportunities for women persists. Only when professional opportunities for all women are improved can the glass ceiling be broken.

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