Volume 24, Number 3 July 1995


Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study

Gerhard Sonnert with the assistance of Gerald Holton
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995

Who Succeeds in Science? The Gender Dimension

Gerhard Sonnert with the assistance of Gerald Holton
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995

I was asked by Science magazine some months ago to comment on the Sonnert-Holton Project Access study, a study which has resulted in these two books, the first for scholars in the field and policy makers, the second for a more general public. I stated then, without equivocation, that "This is the study we've been waiting for." There were and are at least two reasons for my enthusiasm. First, we have here empirical data from an essentially matched sample of mature male and female scientists who were recipients of highly competitive NSF and NRC postdoctoral fellowships between 1952 and 1985. Previously, studies of women in science have been just that: studies of women, individually and in the aggregate, for the purpose of detailing their unique career paths and the formal and informal barriers which have inhibited their progress and success. Researchers studying women, the most recent being the Wellesley study of persistence in science after graduation (1), have sought predictors such as mother's education, father's encouragement, presence or absence of mentors, confidence, academic achievement, and more subtly self-perception of academic achievement (since many able women sell themselves short).

But in the Project Access study we encounter highly successful women and men who have been working in established scientific careers for some time. The predictors, one might say, are behind them, and since all things other than gender are more or less equal, Sonnert and Holton can document specific differences, if any, in career patterns and success.

The second reason for my enthusiasm is that the Sonnert and Holton findings appear to put to rest, hopefully forever, the radical feminist notion that women learn differently, think differently, and must inevitably do a different kind of science than men. Based on nearly 700 questionnaire responses followed by 200 face-to-face interviews, women and men appear to select slightly different kinds of projects: Women seek a niche, and they write fewer articles (2), but they are cited more-- perhaps because they are more careful and more comprehensive. However, women's skill, methods, and overall approach to scientific questions appear to be entirely the same as those of men.

The authors were not looking for this exactly. By starting with a group of men and women who were by all outside measures essentially "equal," they wanted to investigate whether women as a group have passed a kind of threshold in science beyond which gender no longer matters. And indeed they found this to be the case in the biological sciences. On the other hand, they wanted to know whether women scientists were still encountering a "glass ceiling." The authors found this to be somewhat, but not exactly, the case in the physical sciencs, mathematics, and engineering. In those fields, the equally qualified women in their sample were one full rank below the equivalent men. But when the questionnaires and interviews were carefully sifted for clues, the pattern did not seem to suggest a "glass ceiling," but rather "small incremental obstacles" that have retarded women's progress.

In many instances, women selected a less prestigious postdoctoral opportunity. However this was not because more prestigious opportunities weren't offered; winners of prestigious NSF and NRC postdoctoral fellowships generally have their choice. Their choice was, rather, because of a desire to move with a partner or in other ways to accommodate spouse's, children's or elderly parents' needs and preferences.

There may not be much that institutions or funding agencies can do about the matter of spouse and family. Sixty-two percent of the married women in Holton and Sonnert's sample were married to men with Ph.D.s, in contrast to 19 percent of the married men. But to the extent that some of the women scientists in the sample felt themselves to have been "marginalized" by their colleagues, "treated as subordinates," or otherwise discriminated against in subtle ways, they became warier than the men in the sample of collaborating with men. Additionally, the authors found the women in general to have a different "scientific style," again not in the intellectual quality of their work but rather in being less "careerist," less "self- promoting," and eager to find some research niche where they could be left alone.

These are not matters for public policy but for consciousness- raising and constant vigilance by department chairs and senior members of research teams. The value of women to science cann ot be underestimated. Some of the highly promising women in Sonnert's and Holton's sample wanted to or actually did work part-time for periods of their careers. But few left science altogether. And where the field was most hospitable, e.g. in the biological sciences, "women's careers proceeded in roughly the same pattern as men."

The two books present the same findings. But Gender Differences, a volume in the Rose Book Series of the American Sociological Association, is richer in its analysis of the various sociological models which have previously been employed to explain women's lesser status, while Who Succeeds in Science offers the lay reader the pleasure of meeting some of the individual scientists interviewed personally. Together, the two books constitute essential reading for those who would like to see more of our promising women achieve a life in science that they appear to want quite as much as they deserve.

Sheila Tobias

Sheila Tobias has recently authored Rethinking Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities in the Physical Sciences (Research Corporation, Tucson, Arizona, 1995). She is at work on Sexual Politics: The Legacy, a history of the second wave of feminism.

1. Paula Rayman and Belle Brett, "Women Science Majors: What Makes a Difference in Persistence after Graduation?" Ohio State University: Journal of Higher Education, July/August 1995.

2. Women have 2.3 publications per year across all fields, while men have 2.8 publications per year across all fields.