Swarthmore Sees Gender Equality in the Sciences as Gap Remains Nationwide

Many of us like to think that we have made tremendous strides in gender equality in the professional and academic worlds, and that overt, systemic discrimination based on sex is a relic of the past. We can indeed declare with some confidence that much progress has been made in women’s education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, women today earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 63% of masters’ degrees and a majority of doctorates. Swarthmore pre-med and pre-law advisor Gigi Simeone cites similar statistics, noting that “over the past 16 years that I have been at Swarthmore, 100% of our applicants to veterinary school have been women,” and that over the past 6 years, the average percentage of Swarthmore women in our medical school applicant pool has been 58% (the national average has been just under half). In fact, there are growing concerns among education policy analysts regarding an overall imbalance in higher education in which men may actually be falling behind.

“It has gotten dramatically better in the last 40 years,” said Biology Professor Rachel Merz. “As an undergraduate I was the only woman taking Physics in my college. The first time I was in a biology course that had more women than men was in one that I was teaching here at Swarthmore. Now, in my own department and in the areas I work most closely there is near parity in gender numbers.”

Biology Professor Amy Vollmer concurs. “I meet postdocs and grad students regularly when I travel to meetings and to give invited talks. If anything, I see more women trainees and a growing number of young female faculty.”

Yet in spite of the optimistic evidence, empirical and anecdotal, researchers at Yale published a new study just three weeks ago concluding that “despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science.”

The study was simple: 127 professors in the biology, chemistry and physics departments at six major research universities received a recent graduate’s application for a laboratory manager position, half of them from an applicant named “John” and the other half from a “Jennifer.” John received an average of 4 out of 7 from professors while Jennifer only earned an average of 3.3 and was less likely to be mentored or hired in their laboratories. The scientists concluded that the bias most likely stemmed from cultural values regarding gender roles rather than conscious prejudice. Interestingly, female professors were just as biased as their male counterparts.

In response to the study, MIT Biology Professor Nancy Hopkins pointed out that “People tend to think that the problem has gone away, but alas, it hasn’t.” The disheartening if not alarming results of the study beg the question: what accounts for this gender gap in the first place?
Professor Merz highlights the stereotypes of women, conscious and subconscious held by the powers that be. “Since I don’t think there is so much asymmetry in the entrance into the field I would say that any asymmetry that still exists is due to prejudices still operating in hiring and promotion and the activities by which those decisions are made – e.g. grant proposals and publication.”

“My colleagues who have families would also point out that having children still impacts a woman more than a man at many levels,” Professor Merz added. Professor Catherine Crouch of the Physics Department agrees, pointing out that “women face particular challenges in both pursuing a demanding, time-sensitive career path and raising children.” She also cites more systematic and cultural reasons, underlining “cultural stereotypes that girls and women are not good at math and physics.”

The question that inevitably follows then is how the gender inequality in opportunity and outcome is to be confronted and overcome. Professor Vollmer sees many long-term solutions by which the obstacles facing female scientists can be mitigated. “Recruit actively – place qualified women in high profile positions. Mentor men and women through the ranks,” she suggested. Professor Crouch concurs, pointing out that “when a field has low representation of girls and women, that perpetuates itself because role modeling is very important to career choices.” Both professors also recommend a more comprehensive and robust family leave policies that support the family lives of men and women alike. Professor Merz, on the other hand, proposed a system in which “the reviewing of papers and grant proposals [are] ‘double blind,’” a practical measure that could be implemented immediately. “Currently the reviewers’ identities are hidden from the person being reviewed. I think it might improve things if the reviewers of a paper or proposal didn’t know who had submitted it.”

Moreover, Vollmer emphasized how important it was for men in the sciences to be aware of academic gender disparities and, in view of them, promote a welcoming environment for women in the laboratories through mentoring and leadership promotion. “When I was a grad student, there were few women in either [biochemistry or microbiology], but even then, microbiology had a tradition of strong female leaders, such as past presidents of the American Society for Microbiology. I attribute that to strong male mentors who welcomed female students into their microbiology labs,” she argued. “Having women in visible, authentic positions of power and leadership, where they have influence on policy and hiring communicates to the community that women and men share in the responsibilities.” Most importantly, she advises aspiring female scientists to “know, appreciate, and use the power of networking,” underscoring their need for guidance under “strong mentors.”

Fortunately for female scientists at Swarthmore, they can find strong mentors, networking, and simple friendship within the plethoric myriad of student organizations on campus for women in science, including Expanding Your Horizons, Women in Computer Science (WITS), and the Society of Women Engineers. The newest addition to the female scientist community is WITS, or Women in the Sciences, founded by Alexandra Werth ’14. “The most important thing for women to feel comfortable in a science environment is to have mentors, to have friends, to have people to study with, and I think it’s very difficult if you’re a minority in a huge pool of people who aren’t like you,” Werth explained. “We have been talking about women’s issues and talking about ways we can on a bigger scale help the female science community as a whole. Some of that could be through volunteering, becoming more educated, and reaching out to professors.” Yet WITS is not just about discussing women’s issues in the context of the sciences. It also provides a community and safe space for female scientists to connect to peers and mentors of different scientific disciplines. “One of my main focuses was encouraging interdisciplinary events and activities . . . WITS isn’t just helping other women in the sciences but helping everyone in the sciences. We’re planning to host study breaks throughout the year and everyone is invited, guys and girls.”

“There is no one answer and there is no one problem. It’s multifaceted,” Professor Vollmer pointed out. Yet though the problems and solutions remain complex and unclear, she is sure about one thing. “It’s certainly worth addressing and everyone should be concerned about it.” The benefits of a more gender-balanced academic and professional workforce are many. According to Professor Crouch, they include “equality of opportunity, taking full advantage of the talent pool, and broadening the perspective and concerns of the profession with [those] of a broader group of practitioners.” Others point to tenets of difference feminism, the idea that men and women are psychologically different in many tangible ways and can contribute different virtues to a project. Vollmer, for instance, hypothesizes that women in the workplace can “change the dynamics from the stereotypic dominant male competitiveness to a more collaborative, connected set of interactions.”

Though there is still much work to be done to close the gender gap in the sciences and academia as a whole, we also ought to heed Professor Merz’s words of advice. “Overt sexism is not what will limit you,” she declares. “Find what you love and do it.”


  1. Do you really think it is fair to conclude that Swarthmore is better than other institutions because of some data from the pre-med office and a few opinions in the biology department? And because Swarthmore has many support systems set up to encourage women in the sciences, all is right?

    I challenge you, and other Swarthmore students to think critically about this subject. Yes, I think Swarthmore students and faculty are aware of the disparity (hopefully/maybe). However, just because we seem to have these support systems, and like to pretend to talk about solving these problems does not mean we come close to any solutions.

    I think this Phoenix article ignores the point of the PNAS article entirely. They were showing that professors and others still rate women of lesser academic intellect no matter if the circumstances are absolutely the same. How have you gone to evaluate this in your article? I honestly don’t see how showing statistical data about the biological sciences and pre-med show that there is still not some sort of gender bias within Swarthmore’s classes, research etc. What happened to math, physics, chemistry, engineering? How in the world can you claim that Swarthmore is ahead of everywhere?

    I am not writing to attack you. I just think at Swarthmore we too easily conclude that we are better than everyone else, when, in reality we have no way of knowing this. I also believe that we rarely challenge ourselves at to talk about the things that really matter, and I know that it is because they are hard to talk about.

    But, really, just to drive home my point, and conclude in a very Swarthmore way (Also, what does very Swarthmore even mean?):

    -Can we really say, in all honesty that we are above this issue and everything is solved?

    Also, while I’m commenting on this article, something that doesn’t have to do concretely with the argument I am making above, but instead is an overall criticism of how we think about “sensitive” issues (first time, whoo!):

    -What does “diverse” even mean? I just read the article in the Swarthmore Alumni Magazine, written by one of our lovely deans that we want to “Increase diversity at swarthmore” or something like that. It was like “We want to think beyond the traditional ideas of diversity like socioeconomic class, race, etc” but in the end, what was the article even saying??? Also, apparently Swarthmore is an Ageist institution, since increasing age diversity (one of the 9 points of diversity that is always brought up) was not brought up.

    Anyway, my point is more that we too easily think we are better than everyone else when in reality we aren’t. Also, how the hell can anyone ever say that we have gender equality in the sciences at swarthmore? I’m not saying we don’t, I’m just saying there is no way to ever know this. What does equality even mean?????? Another one of those labels we put in front of things that actually means nothing…………

  2. First of all, I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful feedback. As a writer, I am always open to constructive criticism of weaknesses in my argument.

    However, one thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of this piece was not to present an argument regarding the state of gender equality in Swarthmore or in academia at large, but simply to objectively present the observational experiences of faculty, staff, and students on campus regarding this issue from their vantage point.

    In fact the “optimistic” statistical evidence collected in the beginning of the article was intended to point out exactly your point: that these misleadingly encouraging indicators make it is too easy for Americans today in the 21st century to be lulled into a state of false contentment over the progress women have made when in fact, lingering prejudice, psychological bias, and systematic discrimination still exist within academia and the workplace. That is why I transitioned into discussing the sociological implications of the Yale study and why much progress still must be made, even in view of the great strides women have made in the academic world. The female professors on campus quoted in this article simply presented some perspective on how far women have come since they first began their academic careers, while none of them have hinted that the problem of gender inequity has been completely resolved.

    In other words, my point was not to argue that gender inequality in the sciences have been eradicated or that Swarthmore College is less sexist than any other academic institution. It was simply to document how the community of female scientists at Swarthmore feels about the current state of female representation in the sciences in response to the recent Yale study. For the most part, they only spoke from their personal experiences in their fields and from their time working in academia, particularly at Swarthmore. I hope that addresses some of your concerns. Please feel free to provide further comments and concerns you may have with regard to this article and the issues it discusses!

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