Same Auld Lang Syne: Dearth of Diversity in 2016 American Chemical Society Awards

Four days into the new year and it’s déjà vu all over again. The American Chemical Society (ACS), which has 158,000 members, just announced its 2016 National Award winners. Once again, gender inequity and lack of diversity are glaringly apparent:  95% of awardees are men, and a higher proportion present as White.

The Society only includes one award to promote women, the ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, awarded this year to Dr Carol Fierke.

The ACS data show that men are overrepresented not only in award nominations, but also in award success whereas women are underrepresented:

“In the 2015 nominee pool, 83% are male and 17% are female compared to ACS membership demographics of 71% male and 29% female.”

Why is this important? Awards and prizes are widely accepted markers of professional achievement that influence salary, promotion and tenure decisions, to shape and advance careers. The typical explanation for the dearth in gender diversity in award line-ups is that of a pipeline problem, with the prediction being that as more women join STEM fields and make their way up the academic ladder, their share of prizes will concomitantly increase. But this has not happened: contrary to the pipeline hypothesis, women’s share of prestigious awards has fallen in the past decade, compared to the decade before [1]. Closer analysis shows that women receive a disproportionate share of teaching and service awards, at the expense of prizes that recognise research contributions. This is known as The Matilda Effect.

The Matilda Effect posits that research done by women is significantly undervalued and overlooked in favour of that of men

The Matilda Effect

Named after the 19th century American women’s activist Matilda Gage, the term Matilda effect was coined by science historian Margaret Rossiter in 1993 to describe the systematic repression and denial of the contribution of women scientists in research. This is a trend that appears to be robust and thriving in 2016

A Recurring Problem

The French Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666, did not admit any women members for the better part of three centuries. The fourth woman ever to be nominated into the Academy, Marie Curie, was promptly rejected by them due to her gender. Her scientific excellence was beyond reproach as the next year, she won the Nobel Prize. Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, even though more women have broken through the academic glass ceiling, the issue of gender inequity persists in the realm of science, most notably in that of awards and recognition.

In its 113 year history, only 17 individual women scientists have been recognised amongst 692 Nobel science laureates (science, maths and economics ). That means only 2.5% of all STEM Nobel winners are women. The RAISE project, the world’s largest awards database, concludes that women are underrepresented as recipients of many other prestigious awards: for example, only 2.1% of the Fields Medal in Mathematics are held by women, with the first awardee as recently as in 2014. These inexcusable patterns persist: every other year, it seems, another distinguished society comes under fire for failing to control for gender bias, from different corners of the world. In 2011, the American National Academy of Sciences elected only nine women out of 72 new members.  In 2013, the Australian Academy of Science failed to elect any women into the Fellowship. In 2015, the Royal Society’s awards plummeted from one in three women recipients in 2010 to one in 20 awards conferred to women.  

Gender Comparison of Nobel Laureates, 2014

Gender Comparison of Nobel Laureates, 2014

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health High Risk Research Awards show a similar skew for the Early Independence Award; 40.1% of women make up the applicant pool but only 25% of the awardee pool. This means that there is a statistically significant (p = 0.0049) number of women who are being excluded from an award mechanism designed to shorten the time to independence, and potentially better align the career clock with starting a family. As explained in the analysis by Professor Jeremy Berg, the bias may occur not only at the level of review and selection, but also at the level of institutional support: the Early Independence program requires a high level of commitment from the nominating institution and is limited to only two applicants per institution. The discrepancy is particularly damaging to women because it comes at a career junction when the ‘STEM pipeline’ is at its leakiest.

There is large body of literature documenting the reasons that disadvantage women in the awards arena. Women are less likely than men of equal ability to self-promote and seek nominations because of persistent cultural beliefs in the capabilities of men and women. The prize criteria evoke strong stereotypes associated with men, calling for “leaders” and “risk-takers”. Unconscious gender bias is propagated through recommendation letters which use more “standout adjectives” and fewer “grindstone words” in describing male applicants compared to female [2]. The composition of the evaluating committee has been shown to play a role in awards selection: Lincoln et al. showed that the presence of each woman on an awards committee doubled the probability that a woman would receive an award, and that success rate for women tripled in committees with women as chairs. Indeed, diversity in the composition of awards committees has crucial effects on awards outcome, highlighting the additional hurdles faced by women applicants.  

Gender Equity Report

The ACS has published a series of useful reports, with insights that might have prevented the present glaring inequity; in particular, Workshop on Building Strong Academic Chemistry Departments Through Gender Equity. This report, published almost ten years ago, provides data and insights from women in chemistry. The report finds that the proportion of women graduates in chemistry had gradually increased from 23% of PhD graduates in 1993 to 31% by 2002. Despite this increase, women were not progressing through to senior ranks at the same rate as their male counterparts. In a national survey including 52 institutions, only six women were heads of chemistry departments in comparison to 46 headed by men. The barriers to women’s achievements were found to be systemic, and compounded by unexamined gender bias.

For example, prior to hearing about women academic’s experiences, faculty perceive that there is a lack of women applicants to hire, even though the data show there has been a relative increase in the number of women chemists. They also saw that the biggest hurdle to women’s advancement being difficulties in balancing career and family life, while institutional issues such as women’s “heavier teaching loads, few mentoring opportunities, and discrimination in the peer review process was either ‘not an issue’ or ‘not important.’” After participating in a gender equity workshop and listening to women’s experiences, attendees were “significantly more likely” to recognise how policies and practices disadvantage women, from biases of hiring committees, to being excluded from leadership roles.

The report draws on the scientific research showing that unconscious gender bias has an impact on how women’s academic achievements are recognised and rewarded. For example, research shows that gender schemas, the mental frameworks that individuals subconsciously draw on without realising, lead to snap judgements that devalue women’s leadership and competence, even when presented with identical information about men and women.

These gender schemas that we all share result in our overrating men and underrating women in professional settings, but in small, subtle ways: Small disparities—often little matters that we scarcely pay attention to—accumulate over time to men’s advantage and women’s disadvantage

Gender Schemas

The research presented also demonstrate that men who have children are 38% more likely to achieve tenure relative to women. Women academics in their peak childbearing years who have children spend 43 hours on caregiving while their male counterparts spend 21 hours, but overall, almost three quarters of academic mothers report making career sacrifices for their children, while only half of men say the same. Women report twice as much stress due to these additional family commitments. Travel requirements to get ahead also significantly impact on women’s ability to progress in their careers. Women also report funding barriers as a result of their career interruptions.

Against this backdrop, without actively countering for gender bias, how can women make useful career gains required to achieve recognition by professional societies?

The report has some answers geared to department-level change that might be adapted for professional societies such as the ACS. This includes:

using faculty as “talent scouts” at meetings and seminars to find promising young scientists who can be mentored toward successful academic job hunts and careers; training department chairs and search committee members in gender schemas and proper evaluation of candidates letting graduate students know about family/partner friendly policies; including more women on search committees

Gender Equity in Professional Societies

The report specifically includes a section on awards and similar activities that professional societies should ideally provide. We modify some of the recommendations for the purposes of our analysis on scientific awards.

proactively nominate women for awards; run professional development programs ; assist women to secure research funds; establish an equity and diversity leadership group; conduct a gender equity survey on an annual basis; organise and support workshops addressing gender bias; institute a policy of zero tolerance for bullying and harassment

Guide to Gender Equity in STEM

While many of the barriers and solutions listed are reproduced within the university system and in other STEM organisations, all of these issues impact on women’s early-mid-career opportunities, which in turn affect women’s scientific output. This has a reverberating effect, where institutional barriers lead to women’s lifetime achievements being judged as less outstanding than that of men’s.

Yet this is not the case. Women are still prolific in their publications, and while they may not receive the same level of funding, this is due to processes inherent in the academic system. Nevertheless, women contribute a wealth of knowledge to science. The problem is that under the current system, “merit” is judged against criteria that favours men’s career pathways.

This is why professional scientific organisations need to mitigate against unconscious gender bias in their selection criteria. Moreover, academic societies need to be more proactive in supporting women’s research excellence.

So what are some other ways that professional societies might improve awards and recognition of women’s scientific achievements?

How Professional Societies Can Improve Gender Equity

Without clear gender equity guidelines, Awards committees often overlook women’s achievements in academia.

As Professor Rajini Rao and Professor Gabriela Popescu argued on STEM Women, professional societies have an important role to play in combating institutional sexism and diversity issues.

hosting panel discussions on how to better address unconscious gender bias in science ; supporting career sessions ; funding travel scholarships enabling women with caring responsibilities to attend academic conferences; providing onsite job recruitment service for postdocs during national conferences ; curating a “women speaker” list for conferences and workshops maintaining oversight on selection of symposia speakers and awards

How Professional Societies Can Improve Gender Equity

Throughout the year, Minority and Women’s committees convened by professional societies could actively lobby for women to be put forward for awards and prizes, and to lift their profile within their professional and academic networks. Committee members can make contact with women to offer advice on how to apply for awards, and write letters of recommendation on their behalf to Award and Prize committees. Senior women could encourage junior women and other colleagues to apply for awards and offer to solicit nomination letters from their mentors.

Strategies to Improve Gender Equity in STEM Awards

The ACS requires a canvassing committee if nominations are less than eight for any award, two years in a row. We suggest that gender awareness should be added to the Committee’s responsibilities. Below are some additional strategies that are shown to help reduce gender equity bias from Awards selection committees in academia.

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Institutions around the world are grappling with the same issues, and so it makes sense for scholarly academies to lead change. For example, the Australian Academy of Science hosted the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum in 2014, bringing together 140 STEM experts and funding agencies. The Forum Report finds widespread agreement among STEM institutions that cultural change was needed, and they recommended a Pilot of Athena SWAN, a scientific evaluation and accreditation process to address gaps in policy and practice. The Academy is now leading the SAGE Pilot in partnership with the Academy of Technology and Engineering, which includes over half of the higher education sector and other research institutes. In Europe, GenderNet is another example. Led by the European Commission, 14 national scientific organisations are working together to systematically review gender equity barriers in women’s careers as well as through awards funding.

Implementing diversity initiatives is not easy; implicit biases need to be confronted, systemic inequality needs to be addressed, and uncomfortable truths must be acknowledged. But it is of paramount importance that we do so. Recognising the contributions of women scientists is vital for rewarding the efforts of those scientists, and also for enhancing their visibility for the benefit of the next generation of women scientists. Professional societies have an obligation to ensure diversity, in order to promote scientific excellence. For society to thrive, we need scientific innovation. This potential will never be fully realised if gender equity and diversity are not at the forefront of the activities of our scientific societies.

We must do better.

STEM Women
STEM Women is set up to help the public to connect with women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Our network is run by a group of practising STEM women professionals. We aim to create a safe place for people of all genders to discuss how we can work together to make STEM more inclusive.

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  • AWIS

    The Association for Women in Science has been partnering with STEM professional societies, including the ACS, since 2010 when we began our NSF-funded AWARDs® project to address gender disparities in scholarly awards. We’ve found that not only are implicit biases at play in the Matilda Effect pattern, but that repeated and intentional efforts are required to create lasting equitable change in awards processes. Otherwise, the movements toward equity that take place after unconscious bias trainings only
    revert to old patterns between those trainings as things return to business as
    usual. To see research tips in addition to those available in this article,
    please visit:

    • STEMWomen

      We agree re. your observation on consistent and intentional vigilance being necessary to elicit change. Thank you for the link: consistent with our findings, your analysis shows that women academics are overrepresented in service/teaching awards but underrepresented in scholarly/research prizes.

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