Gender inequality in science varies among disciplines

By Lilian Nassi-Calò



An uneven distribution in gender can be observed amongst academics in the fields of hard science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with men clearly predominating (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, STEM). In some fields of the humanities, but by no means in its entirety, there is a predominance of women who have doctorates.

On the basis of these findings, Sarah-Jane Leslie of the Department of Philosophy at Princeton University in the USA and her co-authors published a study in the journal Science1 in which they put forward evidence that women are present to a lesser extent in fields in which it is believed that academic brilliance and innate talent are the major prerequisites, rather than hard work and dedication. According to the authors, women are taught from childhood to believe in this distinction, which can discourage them from following a career in academic disciplines such as physics, engineering and mathematics. This issue was controversial enough to merit a comment from Steve Connor, the science editor of the English newspaper The Independent2 which appeared the day after the publication of the issue of Science mentioned earlier.

At the present time, around 50% of the scientists working in disciplines such as molecular biology and neuroscience in the USA are women, with a mere 20% found in the fields of physics and computer science. In addition, in the social fields, a quintessentially female stronghold, women are not represented evenly in all the disciplines that make up this field. Women make up 70% of doctoral students in history, psychology and anthropology, but merely 35% in economics and philosophy.

The study starts from the premise that individual belief in what is required to become successful in a particular activity depends on the emphasis that the individual gives to their innate talent. Given that women are frequently viewed as negative stereotypes in this regard, they end up by thinking that disciplines which stress the importance of innate talent are somehow hostile. To back up their assumptions, the authors analyzed the percentage of women in 1,820 researchers from 30 academic disciplines including university professors, post-doctoral and post-graduate students from both private and public institutions situated in different parts of the USA. In addition, the researchers gave their responses to questions concerning the specific innate skills considered to be essential for their particular disciplines.

As expected, the study showed an inverse correlation between the disciplines which value innate talent and the number of women represented in them. To test the assumption that a commitment to research is an essential factor in achieving success, the authors asked the researchers the number of hours per week, both on and off campus, that they worked in each discipline. However, no correlation was observed between commitment to research and the representation of women in the disciplines under investigation, which indicates that commitment to one’s work does not explain the difference in the representation of genders in these disciplines.

The selectivity of the disciplines was also analyzed by the percentage of graduate students admitted each year into the different departments. However, analysis of the data did not produce significant results, which does not allow for selectivity to be correlated with gender representation either.

The authors also eliminated the assumption that the requirement for abstract and systematic thinking was the reason behind the low representation of women in the STEM disciplines.

According to Leslie, the hypothesis that innate skills are necessary for success in particular disciplines better explains the data obtained separately from each discipline regarding the percentages of males and females with doctorates in the 30 subject areas examined. Another possibility raised by this study is that if women believed with more conviction than men that a commitment to their work is the ingredient for success in particular subject areas, the disciplines with a greater percentage of women working in them would have a higher rate of specific skills. In fact, the results obtained show that women attach greater importance to commitment than men.

Lastly, the researchers tested their assumptions by normalizing the results regarding belief in an innate ability in each one of the 30 fields studied based on the assumption that the number of men and women was the same. Once again, the results were able to predict the representation of women in each area quite significantly. Therefore, the relationship between the belief in a specific skill and the representation of women in each area is not a simple question of men and women placing a different value on commitment to their work.

The opinion of Andrei Cimpian, one of the co-authors of this study, as stated in the article in The Independent is as follows: “We’re not saying brilliance, or valuing brilliance, is a bad thing. And we’re not saying women are not brilliant or that being brilliant isn’t helpful to one’s academic career. We are also not arguing that women are less brilliant than men. There is no convincing evidence in the literature that men and women differ intellectually in ways that would be relevant to their success in the fields we surveyed. According to our hypothesis, female under-representation is not the result of actual differences in intellectual ability, but rather the result of perceived or presumed differences between men and women.” His final remarks were as follows: “We found that women were indeed less likely to obtain PhDs in fields that idolize brilliance and genius. This hypothesis was better able to explain the data on women’s representations than several of the prominent hypotheses that are currently available.”

In Brazil, the situation of women in science is no different. A study authored by María da Graça Mascarenhas3 and published by FAPESP in 2003 points to the fact that, despite an increase in the number of universities from 53.9% in 1998 to 66% in 2002, women have not yet reached positions of leadership and prominence in their academic careers. Also in Brazil, women predominate (more than 70%) in fields considered “feminine”- Pedagogy, Psychology, Nursing, Letters and Biology. However, there are few women (under 30%) in fields traditionally considered “masculine”such as Engineering, Physics and Astronomy. Nevertheless, in fields such as Odontology, Mathematics and Journalism, women already predominate. A balance of genders is seen in graduates in Administration, Law, Veterinary Medicine, Chemistry and Medicine.

The results are different when analyzing progression in a scientific career. In the article, Mascarehnas points to the data compiled by Hildete de Melo and Helena Martins Lastres who, in 2003, coordinated the Brazilian team referred to by the research report “Brasil –Gênero, Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação –Um Olhar Feminino” (Brazil – Gender, Science, Technology and Innovation – A Women’s Perspective) produced under a joint initiative of UNESCO and the Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos.

According to the authors, the percentage of women in the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq)’s 1A level (the highest level) receiving grants in 1990 was 18.5%. This figure increased slightly to 21.1% in 1999. The increase was slightly greater in the other CNPq levels.

Data obtained for 2013 from the CNPq portal reveals no significant changes in this state of affairs. In that year, 23.5% of the 1A grants were awarded to women while 76.4% were awarded to men.

Hildete de Melo states that the lower number of women receiving research grants from CNPq can be explained by the relatively late arrival of women in the science and technology system.

In 2005, the Programa Mulher e Ciência (Women and Science Program) was launched to stimulate scientific output and serious thought on gender issues, women, and feminism in the country, and to promote the participation of women in the sciences and to encourage them to follow an academic career. The program is the result of the work of an interministerial group composed of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education, CNPq and the United Nations, among others.

A question which remains unanswered concerning the study is if natural aptitude is really more important for success in some fields as opposed to others. The authors are of the opinion that if a field has interest in improving the gender diversity of its researchers, then it should modify the message it sends.

In the same vein, the article by Andrew Penner of the Department of Sociology, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA and published in the same volume of Science3 as the article by Leslie et al, contributes to the analysis of gender inequality in the various fields of science. Penner believes that it is almost impossible to separate out the effects of social bias and individual preference given that people’s understanding of gender differences has a tendency to shape their preferences.

In the opinion of the author, two factors complicate the explanation of the low representation of women in science. In the first place, race and gender are intertwined in such a way as to not allow for a general approach. In the second place, gender representation varies considerably in STEM and non-STEM fields and this difference is explained in the hypothesis put forward by Leslie et al. However, this hypothesis does not explain why there is an increasing number of women studying law, reaching the same proportion as men, given that law is a competitive discipline which demands many hours of study, and law firms are not known to promote family friendly working environments for their staff.

Understanding when and how students become aware of strongly held beliefs about aptitudes for specific disciplines can be instructive. Considering the importance given to mathematical skills for one to be successful in STEM, for example, it would be interesting to see if this skill is considered an innate aptitude. If so, one would expect a lower representation of women in the fields in which mathematics plays a central role which, according to the study of Leslie et al, is what actually happens.

The author believes that if we define success as becoming a professor in the STEM disciplines at a research institution, it will be difficult to obtain gender parity in many fields, thus incentivizing men to become interested in fields actually dominated by women. One should also consider that many women go on to the fields of education and health care after completing their doctoral studies in STEM. In addition to this, society has not valued women’s work as is evidenced by the poor renumeration in areas notoriously considered “women’s work”. The author is also of the opinion that talented women are needed in the STEM areas, in the same way that talented men are welcome in education and health care, and that the question of gender equality should be viewed under a broader perspective. Would society benefit if men were more like women?


1 LESLIE, S.J., and et al. Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science. 2015, vol. 347, nº 6219, pp. 262-265. DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375

2 CONNOR, S. Women are less likely to become scientists because of a ‘misconceived idea of brilliance’, study finds. The Independent. [viewed 15 January 2015]. Available from:

3 PENNER, A.M. Gender inequality in Science. Science. 2015, vol. 347, nº6219, pp. 234-235. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa3781


CONNOR, S. Women are less likely to become scientists because of a ‘misconceived idea of brilliance’, study finds. The Independent. [viewed 15 January 2015]. Available from:

LESLIE, S.J., and et al. Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science. 2015, vol. 347, nº 6219, pp. 262-265. DOI: 10.1126/science.1261375

MASCARENHAS, M.G. Mulheres na Ciência Brasileira. Agência FAPESP. Available from:

PENNER, A.M. Gender inequality in Science. Science. 2015, vol. 347, nº6219, pp. 234-235. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa3781

External Links

Portal CNPq –Estatísticas – <>

Programa Mulher e Ciência. Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico. -<>


lilianAbout Lilian Nassi-Calò

Lilian Nassi-Calò studied chemistry at Instituto de Química – USP, holds a doctorate in Biochemistry by the same institution and a post-doctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Wuerzburg, Germany. After her studies, she was a professor and researcher at IQ-USP. She also worked as an industrial chemist and presently she is Coordinator of Scientific Communication at BIREME/PAHO/WHO and a collaborator of SciELO.


Translated from the original in Portuguese by Nicholas Cop Consulting.


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

NASSI-CALÒ, L. Gender inequality in science varies among disciplines [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2015 [viewed ]. Available from:


One Thought on “Gender inequality in science varies among disciplines

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation