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The Lab’s Gender Gap

June 25, 2010

Photo from The Vancouver Sun

All over the world, women scientists are paid less than their male colleagues. That’s according to an international survey of 10,500 scientists, which found that six to 10 years after completing their PhDs, men’s salaries start to increase relative to women’s. And the gap widens over time. For example, in Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, the United States and Canada, male scientists earn 18 to 40 percent more than female scientists. 

Kathleen Christensen, a specialist in workplace issues with a non-profit research organization,  offers two possible explanations for the salary gap. First up, there’s sexism – like when equally or better qualified women are passed over for promotion in favour of men. In its more subtle forms, women scientists aren’t offered the microphone at scientific meetings, or are expected to organize office social events and run lab administration (as Christensen terms it, ‘office wives’). Second, women suffer the consequences of trying to balance the demands of career and family. 

Christensen points out that women scientists often start their careers with slightly lower salaries, in more poorly equipped labs, with fewer graduate students, and appointments to less-prestigious committees. Women are more likely to take time off work to stay home with their children, and less likely to go on the job market to improve their salaries. They’re also less likely to win high-status prizes. According to Christensen

Each factor alone may not account for the salary shortfall, but cumulatively they squarely position women at the low end of the salary range. 

In another opinion piece about the same survey, Stacy L. Galhaus, Chair of the US National Postdoctoral Association Board of Directors, echoes the point that children are the biggest obstacle to women obtaining a tenure-track position. Family-friendly policies, such as part-time or flexible working arrangements, are still frowned upon. Galhaus says,  

Many think that if you aren’t in the lab 80 hours a week you can’t be successful 

It seems to me that the definition of success is a large part of the problem. Many workers – men and women – don’t take advantage of family-friendly policies because they know their success depends heavily on the number of hours they’re able to log. And in one way, it makes sense: the more hours you put in, the more you accomplish in a shorter span of time. Unfortunately, this definition of success is gender biased. 

When being a father meant being a breadwinner first, men could spend long hours at the office (or in the lab) because they had a wife at home to take care of their children. But times are a-changing. Women, like men, want to have successful careers in demanding fields – we’re just missing a wife. I can remember discussing this very issue with my college roommate, who was studying to become a doctor. With years of schooling ahead, she sometimes worried about the impact her first child might have on career-critical years. 

Whether you’re a doctor or a scientist, work-life balance is important. Women and especially, men, should be encouraged to take advantage of family-friendly policies like parental leave and flexible working hours.  I, for one, think narrowing the gender gap in the home is one way to start narrowing it in the workplace.

  1. June 25, 2010 3:14 pm

    I am a male PhD student in biology, and my girlfriend and I discuss this subject frequently. Thank you for not taking the all-too-common approach of simply decrying the wage gap, and being willing to look at the nitty-gritty of why the gap may exist in the first place.

    I can think of three options options to solving this problem, each of which are touched upon in this post:

    1) Women get paid more even if they work fewer hours (“gender biased” definition of success above). I’m not sure if you’re really pushing for this, since you admit that it makes sense that somewhat gets paid more for doing more work. For instance, if we’re getting paid to move bricks, and we each move 10 bricks per hour, and I decide to work 12 hours and you work 8 hours, then it makes sense for me to get paid more because I’m moving more bricks.

    2) Women chose to work longer hours. I think this is the one least-often proposed by critics of this issue (including this post). I think you get half of the way here by pointing out that women are “missing a wife” that could stay home and take care of the kids, and seem to be implicitly saying that women’s partners could fill that role. However, you’re not outright suggesting that women prioritize their careers above their families, which is the gist of this solution.

    3) Men work less. It seems like you are suggesting something like this at the end, when you say that “especially men” should take advantage of flexible working hours. Now, as someone in the field, “taking advantage” of flexible working hours is equivalent to saying “don’t try as hard to excel in the field.” It would be nice if you could become the next Stephen Hawking and only work 25 hours a week. Unfortunately, it’s just not in the cards.

    I hope I haven’t come across as attacking this article, because I really enjoyed it. However, I think it isn’t explicit enough in describing exactly what you think is the solution to this sticky problem. I, personally, think that you’re right in saying that the definition of success is biased, but I don’t think it’s about gender but about overall priorities. Why do we think anyone (man or woman) who chooses to prioritize their family at the cost of their career is somehow not succeeding? Unfortunately, those kinds of intangibles aren’t easily quantified, and therefore aren’t reported. I think women, in the end, might be the ones succeeding.

    • June 27, 2010 9:52 am

      I was thinking while reading your response (“It would be nice if you could become the next Stephen Hawking and only work 25 hours a week”) that some women are endeavoring to become the next Stephen Hawking too. But yes, for now, many more men are. And this isn’t just because of workplace inequalities, but larger inequalities of cultural expectation. So, I agree that “narrowing the gender gap in the home is one way to start narrowing it in the workplace.” And it doesn’t just require changes in the homes of adult men and women scientists, but in all homes and in the way we all raise our children, so that girls can also become women who might desire to surpass Stephen Hawking, and boys can also become men who might want to maintain their home as much as their career.

      For a pretty good article about this kind of balancing:

      “In Sweden, Men Can Have It All”

  2. June 26, 2010 4:01 am

    Great blog and I’m now a follower

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