The good news is that legions of women scientists have been fighting back against this sexism for years, in many cases with extraordinary success. Being trained to gather data to measure and document problems helped us prove that the issues we faced existed, and the problem-solving skills we’d honed in our labs helped us figure out how to address them. For Nancy Hopkins and other women at MIT in the late 1990s, that meant taking out a tape measure and showing that, while senior male professors had labs averaging 3,000 square feet, senior female professors had, on average, just 2,000 square feet in which to work—roughly as much as junior male faculty members.
I’m happy to say that advances have been made to enhance the participation of women in science, mathematics, technology, engineering, and medicine since I began my career. By the mid-1980s, women in microbiology were banding together to make sure that nominations for leadership positions in professional organizations included women—not just once, but year after year, so that we’d have time to make reforms last. During my tenure as director of the National Science Foundation, I worked with the president and Congress to increase the country’s overall budget for research in science, mathematics, and engineering. My team and I also made it a national priority to lift the status of women in academic science and to reform the misogynistic culture of universities. We launched ADVANCE, a program that, from 2001 to 2018, funded contracts to solve problems experienced by women in the sciences on more than 100 campuses.
Despite all of these efforts, major disparities persist. A study last year found that the typical National Institutes of Health research grant to a male principal investigator is $41,000 larger than to a female one. The gap between NIH grants for women and men is even larger at top universities: $68,800 at Yale and $76,500 at Brown.
In 2011, the biologist Jo Handelsman and her team at Yale decided to perform an experiment to see just how bad bias against women in science was. She persuaded 127 scientists in biology, chemistry, and physics departments at six leading research universities across the country to evaluate a job application. Ostensibly, the application came from a recent graduate seeking a position as a laboratory manager, and all of the applications were identical, or almost: half the applications were signed “John,” and half were signed “Jennifer.” The disturbing results revealed both men and women scientists judged the male applicant to be more competent than the female applicant with identical qualifications. More faculty members said they’d hire John than Jennifer, and those who were willing to hire her would pay her almost $4,000 less a year. All across the board—no matter their age, sex, scientific field, or tenure status—faculty members preferred John.