Education Editors' Vox

Women in Science: A Q&A with an Editor

A personal perspective on women in science and how we can increase representation in the the geosciences


The American Geophysical Union (AGU) recently performed a study of implicit gender bias in their own peer review process. The results of this study showed, most notably, that female scientists are more likely to be overlooked as reviewers and are more likely to decline review requests when asked. However, the study also showed that women have a higher overall paper acceptance rate.

The results of this study highlight multiple issues that permeate not only the science community, but also our society as a whole, including representation, stereotyping, discrimination, and harassment. While this study focused on gender, there is still more work to be done on how implicit bias effects people of color, LGBTQA+ individuals, and other underrepresented groups.

We discussed these topics with Sabine Stanley, one of the editors of the AGU journal JGR-Planets. Stanley is currently a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Her current research involves planetary magnetic fields, dynamo theory, and planetary interior structure.

Q: What are some ways we can encourage women to embrace science early on? How important is representation in science?

A: Many studies prove that girls and boys have similar interest and aptitude in science in early elementary school. In her article, “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?,” Elizabeth S. Spelke provides evidence that “mathematical and scientific reasoning develop from a set of biologically based cognitive capacities that males and females share.” A major issue that needs to be addressed is how to nurture that interest in later years when children are influenced by societal pressure, gender-based marketing, and stereotyping. To take it a step further, in “Gender, culture, and mathematics performance,” Hyde and Mertz suggest the gender gap between males and females in mathematics “correlates with several measures of gender inequality.” The study goes on to say the gender gap is “largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors- not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.”

The fix is both obvious and formidable: change society so that women and underrepresented minority groups have equal opportunities to pursue their interests. I think two of the most important elements are to (1) provide young girls with meaningful interactions with female scientists so they can learn to self-identify as scientists and (2) ensure that laws, policies, and action plans are in place to protect women and underrepresented minorities throughout their studies and careers from the bias, harassment, and other issues that can be major detriments to their success.

Q: Did you have any female mentors or role models in your field?

A: During my entire undergraduate degree, I only had one female professor for a physics or astronomy course, and that wasn’t until my senior year. I was very fortunate to have an excellent male mentor. His encouragement, advice, and networking contacts were the reason I decided to pursue planetary science. During my graduate studies at Harvard, I worked on a research project with Prof. Maria Zuber at MIT. This was my first substantive interaction with a female scientist. She became my postdoctoral advisor and I benefited immensely from our interactions.

Seeing such a successful, smart, and confident female scientist made me more confident that it was possible for me to succeed in this field. As scientists, existence proofs are incredibly important, and I was fortunate to get such a solid one! As I began my professorship, I found that other senior women in the field really stepped up and helped me navigate the murky waters of a tenure-track position. I try to pay this forward whenever possible with students and junior faculty.

In some ways, however, I worry that I am the wrong person to answer this question. I had very positive experiences, even though I didn’t have many interactions with female scientists. I was somewhat clueless during my undergraduate and graduate studies about issues related to gender and diversity in science, and I think that’s typical for people who are fortunate enough to have an easy path through their studies and careers. I am now much more aware of the issues faced by some of my students and colleagues. I see how important having female mentors and role models can be for recruiting and retaining women in the field.

Q: Have you seen any recent initiatives to address gender bias and/or sexual harassment in the sciences?

A: There are three places where I have seen important initiatives and momentum recently. First, scientific studies on gender bias in academic hiring and reference letter writing have led to some “best practices” recommendations for hiring in academia. However, the degree to which these best practices are implemented can depend on the specific hiring committee.

For example, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” by Moss-Racusin et al., details a randomized, double-blind study in which faculty rated the male applicants as “significantly more competent and hire-able than the (identical) female applicant.” The faculty also selected higher starting salaries and offered more mentoring to the male applicants.

Likewise, in “Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience,” Dutt et al. analyze a data set of over 1200 recommendation letters, revealing that “female applicants are only half as likely to receive excellent letters versus good letters compared to male applicants.”

Second, I think the efforts of AGU and other scientific societies to create codes of conduct for their members, along with policies on acceptable behavior at conferences, is very important. I hope that other scientific societies follow their lead.

Third, recent, high-profile cases of sexual harassment and gender bias in the sciences have drawn attention to the fact that universities need to implement better policies to protect women. It is a complex issue, and one that needs universities to realize that the negative impact on their students, postdocs, faculty, research output, and image greatly outweighs the grant money and apparent prestige they get from protecting offenders in their systems.

Q: When women are asked to review, do you notice they are less likely to accept than their male counterparts?

A: I haven’t had this experience personally, as an editor, but studies show that women tend to do more service work than men in their departments and communities. For example, “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work” by Misra et al. suggests that “service work continues to pull women associate professors away from research.” This may mean that women are already overloaded with commitments and hence more likely to decline when asked to review a paper.

Also, it is more likely that women who are being asked to review are at earlier career stages. Although reviewing is an incredibly important aspect of publications, it is also a job that doesn’t get much credit for early career scientists who are trying to balance the combination of developing their research and teaching portfolios with their personal lives.

The higher paper acceptance rate among women suggests to me that women are doing excellent research, resulting in strong acceptance rates, which is fantastic. However, perhaps women are realizing that, for their career success, it is more important to prioritize publishing their own research than being involved in the review process, which does not get much recognition.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of women in planetary science?

A: Ultimately, I hope that women and underrepresented minorities have equal opportunities. To make this happen, it is very important for them to have strong allies among the majority group (i.e. white men) in the community. My biggest hope is that more white men step up and prioritize improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in our field. We need to stop relying on women and underrepresented minorities to shoulder this burden.

—Sabine Stanley, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University; email: [email protected]

  • Dr. Adrian Tuck

    After 52 years as research student, postdoc and research scientist I have concluded that the biggest single improvement that could have been made is a roughly equal split between male and female scientists. My reason for saying so is that the enterprise could do with a better balance between cooperation (more) and competition (less), and I think more women might move things in that direction. It’s a potential selling point for authors of articles like this, and you might find a ready audience among the men, too, not all of whom enjoy the current rat race for publications, funds, publicity and preferment.