Women are three times less likely than men to become scientists, largely due to negative stereotypes that deter young women from pursuing careers in the sciences as researchers, according to a recent report from the L'Oreal Foundation.
The report analyzed data from 14 countries that tracked at which points in women's educational and career paths they begin to leave science-related fields. The report's findings indicate the gap occurs at the bachelor's degree level, but according to Laurie Glimcher, dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, the problem arises much earlier.
"The problem starts early and it starts probably before high school," Glimcher says. "Fewer girls are attracted to science, or are encouraged to devote themselves to science, and that gap just gets bigger and bigger as careers progress."
According to the report, women earn just 32 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded in science. That proportion drops to 30 percent at the master's degree level, and to 25 percent for doctorates. Furthermore, just 1 in 10 women hold the highest academic position in science disciplines, and just 3 percent of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women.
"If the world is to meet the scientific challenges of the 21st century, we must challenge deeply-rooted stereotypes and develop a stronger, more robust pipeline of young scientists to help us innovate every single day," Sara Ravella, chief executive officer of the L’Oréal Foundation, said in a statement.
The number of female researchers has also remained relatively stagnant during the last decade, and has only increased by 12 percent during that same time, up 3 percentage points from 26 percent to 29 percent.
"That's in part because there still persist very negative stereotypes around women in science, and that's discouraging for high school girls," says Glimcher, who was the 2014 North American recipient of the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award.
But aside from the stigma that may prevent some young women from pursuing careers in scientific fields, Glimcher says there's a "very real," more tangible problem women face: the pressure to balance having a family with holding a demanding and time-consuming job.
"Science is not a part-time job. You want to be competitive, you want to be a leader in the field. It takes passion, commitment, time, drive, effort, energy, perseverance and a pretty robust emotional status," Glimcher says.
But at the same time, many women are at a point in their lives when they're starting families, and Glimcher says the support systems aren't available to make that doable for women in science.
"We need more role models, for one thing. Young women look around and say, ‘How can I do this?’" Glimcher says. "We need more role models of women who are at the highest echelons of leadership as concrete examples for these girls and women."
The L'Oreal Foundation, to that end, is launching an advocacy program targeting high school students in France that will reach out to students as they're about to choose their college majors, Ravella says in a statement to U.S. News.
"We will take advantage of our network of former fellows to go to schools to talk about their careers in science and break the gender stereotypes," Ravella says.
But another concrete way to attract more women to science – and make sure they succeed – is to "put our money where our mouth is" when it comes to support, Glimcher says.
Colleges should provide funding for offices that support all postdoctoral and junior faculty members, such as offices that advise individuals on moving up in the workplace, maintaining work-life balance, writing grants for research and preparing for interviews. While those are things that are helpful to both men and women, Glimcher says, in some cases they are more valuable for women.
Another option, she says, is for grants to be made available for postdoc researchers to apply for technical support. Additional funds could allow laboratories to hire technicians and research assistants to provide support for an individual researcher.
"It's important to support women in many ways, emotionally, and so on, but … when rubber hits the road, you have to make it possible for them," Glimcher says.