Science Policy & Funding AGU News

Working Toward Gender Parity in the Geosciences

How are women represented in the geosciences? The author of a new AGU book, Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity, answers some questions.


Although women receive 40% of the undergraduate degrees in geosciences in the United States, these numbers plummet in postgraduate academic career paths. Why the drop-off? Could it be the lack of mentors for women in the geosciences or perhaps the implicit biases that affect hiring of women?

Mary Anne Holmes, a University of Nebraska professor of practice, geosciences/sedimentology, and women in geosciences, pulled together research in an attempt to address these issues in a new book titled Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity, published 8 June by the American Geophysical Union.

Eos sat down with Holmes to ask her a few questions about how women are represented in the geoscience fields and about the book.

Eos: Why did you decide to put this book together?

Holmes: The immediate motivation was that my coauthors and I became aware of how many women geoscientists were working in National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE and ADVANCE-type programs across the nation, and it seemed like a good time to compile what we’ve learned. ADVANCE is an NSF crosscutting program—all the NSF directorates contribute to its funding because they support the goal—to increase the number of women on the faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—STEM—fields.

ADVANCE is the latest program that NSF launched to increase the number of women in the professoriate. It is a response to program officers recognizing that underrepresentation cannot be addressed by funding one woman at a time but that it was time to “fix the institution, not the woman.”

The National Science Board, NSF’s governing body, collects the data that show that women receive geoscience degrees, but those numbers have not been translating to numbers of women applying for grants at NSF. The first few programs to try to address this issue launched back in the 1980s and 1990s targeted individual women; ADVANCE targets the institution.

Really, the book addresses the broader issues of underrepresentation of women in STEM; we hoped that by writing specifically to geoscientists, we could have more of an impact on our own field.

Eos: You mention that there is a large percentage of women who pursue geosciences as undergraduates but that this number drops off as they advance in academics. Where does “parity” begin?

Holmes: Parity, I think, begins when the proportion of women in faculty and professional positions more or less matches the proportion that majored in geoscience. And we understand that there’s a time lag.

In Nature Geosciences in 2008, we argued that parity will occur when every geoscience student can see someone on the faculty whose life they wish to emulate. For example, at one point my department had five women on the faculty, but none of us had children. I don’t consider that “parity.” I had women students in my office in tears because they loved geoscience but would not give up the opportunity to have a family; from the faculty they saw, they thought they had to choose between the two. This is a terrible choice no one should be forced to make.

Now we have a baby boom in our department. I never have female students in my office in tears anymore.

Eos: Why do women tend to turn away from geosciences between undergrad and more advanced degrees?

Holmes: The closest we have to a systematic data set addressing this question is a set of focus group results from 2003 where we asked geoscientists whether they had ever considered leaving and, if so, why. We found that men and women considered leaving, but more women considered leaving than men.

Many of the reasons were common among respondents, including difficult classes or finding they were in the wrong subdiscipline. But only women had issues such as “unhelpful/discouraging advisors” and the utter lack of accommodation for family, particularly when they were students. Even tenured women considered leaving after tenure when the arrival of a new child or the dislocation of a spouse caused enormous stress in their lives.

So, from these results, the answer includes the continued denial of the need for faculty and students to attend to family needs and also a continued nonwelcoming or nonencouraging/nonsupportive climate in some departments.

In addition, from my personal experience, I see a lack of role models, a lack of encouragement from faculty, exclusion from networks, and crises of confidence also contributing.

Eos: Why are mentors so important for women who want to pursue geosciences?

Holmes: A good mentor elucidates informal policy and practice, whether the mentee is a woman or a man. He or she imparts the unspoken cultural rules and norms. In many cases, this process is so informal, even subtle, as to be nearly implicit. We may not even realize we are being mentored when it happens. But we learn the informal practices and policies from mentors, whether we are aware of it at the time or not.

In addition to mentors, it is helpful to have sponsors. These are people who go to bat for us, who make the argument on our behalf when we can’t be in the room during performance evaluations.

Eos: You mention in the book that the “pipeline” metaphor describing how students advance through academia has limitations. What are these limitations, and how does the “interstate highway” metaphor that you introduce better fit this issue?

Holmes: For one thing, the metaphor suggests that the people in the pipeline are passively being moved along it—or not—with no agency of their own. For another, a pipe tends to go to one place, and in the geosciences, there are many career tracks possible.

The interstate highway metaphor is probably a better conceptual model because it allows for multiple entries, exits, rest stops, and destinations. The straight-line career path of undergraduate, graduate, postdoc, academic job works for some people but not for everyone. People have to pause along the way for many reasons. Currently, it is difficult to get back on track, but there are ADVANCE programs that address “on-ramping.”

An example of how on-ramping can benefit academia is the doctorate holder who works in industry, government, or a nongovernmental organization for a while. That person may not have the publication or grant-dollar record we normally look for in a candidate for an entry-level academic position, but he or she could bring a wealth of expertise and a new perspective that could greatly benefit the science.

Eos: How do implicit biases affect hiring, promoting, evaluating, and accepting women students? What steps are being taken to mitigate this effect?

Holmes: Implicit biases can cause small negatives against some group in any evaluative process. There are many studies—some discussed in the book—that demonstrate that if a resume for a STEM job is constructed out of thin air and a man’s name is put on one copy and a woman’s on the other, both men and women will prefer to hire or promote the man.

In academia, when there is a slight difference in who gets encouraged to apply for graduate school and a difference in who gets admitted and who gets the assistantship or fellowship, then those differences repeat for postdoctoral positions, this trend results in what Virginia Valian of Hunter College calls “the accumulation of disadvantage.” As a result, there will be fewer women higher up the career ladder.

Further, research demonstrates that we all tend to write better, more superlative letters of recommendation for men when compared to those we write for women. Realizing that the letters for women and people from all underrepresented groups will be less stellar, we need to take that into consideration and not rely solely on the letters. It does make evaluation more time-consuming and troublesome at first, but with time, new procedures will become as routine as current ones are.

How to mitigate implicit bias? Surprisingly, there is not as much solid research on this, but what exists suggests that implicit biases are stronger when we are unaware that they exist, so learning about implicit bias is essential.

In addition, when we are in a rush, we rely on gut instinct. So allowing plenty of time to evaluate applications is essential.

Eos: Why have you dedicated much of your life to studying the gender gap in the geosciences? As a geoscientist yourself, did you see discrimination or experience a “chilly climate” firsthand?

Holmes: I absolutely have experienced and witnessed it, but that is all ancient history. What concerns me is how we move forward so that anyone attracted to our field is recruited and retained for whatever geoscience career they choose. I am concerned that in some places, there still is an unwelcoming or even chilly climate, as I have heard from some current graduate students; for example, a student recently told one of my coauthors that she was discouraged from doing strenuous field work.

Why have I dedicated much of my life to this issue? My friends joke it’s in my genes: My mother worked with the League of Women Voters for decades for women’s rights in Georgia. When she arrived in Georgia from Louisiana—so my father could attend Georgia Tech on the G.I. Bill—she was horrified to learn that Georgia did not allow women to enter contracts without having a male family member cosign. Women could not get a loan to buy a car, could not have their name alone on a home mortgage. Her mother, my grandmother, so cherished the right to vote—a right not honored until she was in her early 20s—that she saved her voting receipts and never missed a vote.

Eos: Are there any data on other underrepresented groups, such as women of color or transwomen, in STEM fields or, specifically, geosciences? Is there any research being done on how these groups fare in STEM fields?

Holmes: There is definitely research being done on other underrepresented groups, particularly in the ADVANCE program. Much of this work got a late start, unfortunately, and not enough was available for the geosciences as we began to put the book together.

The principal issue for ADVANCE is that numbers of women of color are so low that the Institutional Research Boards that govern how surveys are conducted rarely allow the disaggregation of the data. For example, there might be one woman of color in the biology department; to report this in data sets would allow her to be identified and would be a violation of her privacy, so at most institutions, we do not know the survey responses of people from underrepresented groups or, in many cases, even their numbers if there are fewer than five.

So with five we could have a bin labeled “racial/ethnic minority,” but we have no idea even what races or ethnicities are in that bin. This really limits finding solutions.

As for transwomen, few surveys even ask about [gender identity], and if they did, we would have the same issues with low numbers and privacy protection.

I’m hopeful that someone will be able to bundle data sets from multiple academic institutions to reach the critical numbers we need to start to really dig deeper into the specific issues and barriers for our colleagues. The solutions will involve institutional transformation, just as ADVANCE recognized the need to fix the institution, not the woman.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity, 2015, 192 pp., ISBN: 978-1-119-06785-6, list price $79.95

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), Working toward gender parity in the geosciences, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO031573. Published on 17 June 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
  • OFBG

    While equal opportunity for everyone is laudable, why is gender “parity” a necessary goal?

  • Tomdance

    I wonder about the broader role of socioeconomic status in one’s career path and success. I suspect there is a pretty strong correlation between one’s childhood economic status and degree of education; and also given that a faculty position is typically a bad financial move for someone with the ability and drive to get a Ph.D., how the need or desire to earn either a larger salary or earn money more quickly affects career decisions.