The statistics on women and underrepresented minorities (URMs) in science are depressing as a female graduate student.

Women still only make up about 25 percent of science and engineering tenured faculty positions in the U.S., while all URMs only make up about 6 percent of tenured positions.

Once they become faculty members, women are less likelyto have obtained federal funding than men across all races. URMs in total earn about 7 percent of science and engineering Ph.D.s, though they obtain about 15 percent of the bachelor’s degrees.

Interestingly, among URMS, women are more likely to obtain science and engineering degrees at all levels, driven particularly by degrees in psychology and the social sciences. Since they are less likely to land tenure track positions, women in science and engineering are more likely to be employed part-time; and if they are unemployed and not retired, more women than men cite family as the reason for unemployment, regardless of race.

Recently, I attended a lunch with a faculty speaker with several other trainees, most of who happened to be women. The speaker was a typical PI- a middle-aged white man. At some point in the conversation, the subject of women experiencing discrimination in science came up. All of the female trainees in the room had experienced some form of discrimination at some point in time which for some even made them question their abilities as scientists.

The PI appeared confused, like he had never heard of such a thing happening, and found it very difficult to believe that in such an ‘objective’ field, that there would be discrimination based on sex. However, research on the subject backs up what I and my fellow trainees have experienced; most women in surveys claim to have experienced

gender-based discrimination at some point in their careers, which may be one reason why men outnumber women in full-time faculty positions.

There may, however, be some amount of hope on the horizon. Recent analysis shows that between the bachelor’s and Ph.D. phase, STEM pipeline no longer leaks more females than males, meaning that women have the same capacity and drive to succeed at that stage of STEM. However, this work does not take into account loss of interest before reaching college, or lack of support and discrimination women face following their PhDs.

Starting in fourth grade, girls and boys show similar interest in science, however, by the time they reach college, only 17 percent of women show interest in pursuing a STEM degree, while 32 percent of men state the same. Obviously, primary education greatly influences a girls’ desire to go into STEM fields, however, their education likely discourages them from going into those disciplines.

Stereotypes of STEM being masculine and dominated by men ultimately influence the number of women who go into those fields. Implicit biases based on those stereotypes means boys and men are often perceived by educators as being more competent than women, and thus obtain higher grades in those subjects during school, and may get more job recommendations from mentors. These same biases discourage women from going into STEM, as they may perceive themselves as less capable than their male counterparts.

Interestingly, studies suggested that lack of confidence in STEM disciplines, rather than ability, may influence women into not pursuing STEM as a career. Other research found that women in graduate school perceive that they have to exert more effort than their male counterparts to succeed, which may impact their motivation. This study went on to find that if females were given reassurance that their efforts were aligned with expectations, their motivations were restored. This may indicate that role models and mentoring can play a large role in maintaining women in STEM fields.

Women In Science Group

In light of these challenges, and the potential benefits of mentorship, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio has started a new group for trainees called Women in Science, Development, Outreach and Mentoring (WISDOM). Our goals include community outreach and peer-level support for trainees, in hopes of inspiring young women to enter STEM and supporting those of us who have already chosen that career path.

This article was written by Liz Fisher, a graduate student in the IBMS- Cell biology, genetics and molecular medicine (CGM) track/discipline and member of the Women in Science, Development, Outreach and Mentoring (WISDOM) group at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio offers academic programs in the biomedical sciences.