What It’s Like For Female Scientists in The 21st Century?

female scientist using a microscope in a science lab

You’ve probably read books or seen movies where women make notable contributions to science, but only get their deserved recognition posthumously — or not at all.

Has the societal landscape changed for female scientists in the 21st century? Let’s take a look:

Males Patent the Vast Majority of Inventions

You have women to thank for inventing and patenting things ranging from windshield wipers to the dishwasher. But, a study from the United Kingdom shows that female inventors comprise less than 13% of global patent applications. There’s only one female inventor filing a patent application for every seven males doing the same.

Furthermore, most patent applications come from male-dominated teams. Analysts attribute the lack of patent application from females to the still-present absence of enough women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and relevant research.

Females Still Face Gender Bias When Engaging With Hiring Committees

Impressing the people on a hiring committee can make the difference between landing your dream role at a company and getting passed over when the group favors another candidate.

A study involving French researchers and a psychologist from the University of British Columbia shows that women often come up against unconscious, gender-based bias when putting themselves forward for science roles in that situation.

Researchers measured implicit bias by seeing how strongly people on hiring committees associated men with science jobs. Females and males who evaluated job candidates both clearly associated men with science careers.

However, a positive outcome of the study was the finding that when hiring panels were more conscious of the gender bias faced by female scientists, they become more likely to overcome their bias when selecting candidates.

This suggests efforts to educate people in the science community — especially those who hire female scientists — about these biases may make the prejudices less prominent in the future.

Women in Full-Time Science Roles Are More Likely to Leave Them After Childbirth

Recent progress with things like paid maternity leave means that women in science or other fields do not necessarily have to worry as much about choosing between having enough income to pay the bills and taking time off from work to care for a newborn baby.

But, research shows that new mothers in science are more likely to leave full-time roles after having their first kids compared to fathers in the same situation.

The research indicated that more than 40% of women in the U.S. either stop working in science altogether or switch to part-time roles. But, less than a quarter of men do those things.

On a positive note, at least more females in the 21st century feel able to enter the workforce without dealing with excessive criticism.

During earlier eras, many members of society thought a woman’s primary goals in life were to get married, maintain the home and have kids. Juggling a career typically didn’t come into the picture at all, especially once a woman found a partner.

Female Scientists in the 21st Century Women Win More Prizes, But Not As Prestigious Ones

Winning an award lets a scientist receive much-deserved recognition. Research indicates that today’s female scientists earn prizes more often than those from earlier centuries. But, men still top females regarding receiving the most prestigious, lucrative accolades — despite each gender having a comparable body of work.

That may change, however. In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third woman to receive a Nobel Prize in physics. Then, in 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck became the first female to win the Abel Prize, which honors outstanding contributors in mathematics.

Uhlenbeck’s work spans many disciplines. She says one of her proudest moments came when her teamwork with a male colleague resulted in the two focusing on a mathematical theory related to how soap film arranges into shapes that minimize energy.

21st Century Females Are More Likely to Receive Credit for Research Contributions

While reading research papers from the 20th century, you’d likely see a disturbing lack of female contributors — or at least adequately acknowledged ones. A group looked at more than 800 academic papers penned by more than a thousand authors. They found that about 93% of the authors were men. Females, on the other hand, were more likely to receive brief mentions rather than authorship.

However, there’s a promising trend specific to female scientific authors in medicine. A 10-year review revealed a 4% increase in female authors contributing to some of the leading journals for medical specialties.

Lots of Progress Needed, But Hopeful Signs Exist

Female scientists in the 21st century don’t enjoy as much equality as you may have hoped or expected.

Even so, things are slowly changing for the better, and those positives could become even more apparent once women keep receiving encouragement to get into and stay in STEM fields.

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