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Comments on ‘girls’ in science highlight persistent gap in field

Nobel Prize-winning British scientist Tim HuntAFP/Getty Images/File/2011

Nobel Prize-winning British scientist Tim Hunt got himself into hot water when he said that the “trouble with girls” in scientific laboratories is the potential for romantic relationships, asserting that romance is “disruptive to science.”

The controversy highlights a larger problem for “girls” in scientific laboratories, who according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics are outnumbered — often dramatically — in 80 percent of world nations.

In the United States, the scientific community has made some strides over the past decade in the direction of gender parity. More women are earning degrees in the sciences and getting related jobs, especially in the social and biological sciences.


But despite these gains, women still hold a only fraction of the science and engineering positions in this country.

Women made up 48 percent of the total US workforce, but they occupied only 24 percent of the STEM workforce, according to a 2013 report by the US Census. The science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, workforce participation rate was a significant fall-off from the percentage of female science and engineering graduates, at 39 percent.

In some of STEM’s most booming and lucrative fields, like computer science and technology, the gender gaps are even higher. Data collected by the White House showed that the number of computer degrees and certificates awarded women declined between 2001 and 2012, while more men received degrees.

The ratio for those degrees in 2012 was one female recipient for every 3.5 male graduates.

There are some relative bright spots for the women who make it into the sciences. Women who work in STEM jobs make 33 percent more than those other fields, according to the White House. They also have a smaller pay gap relative to their male counterparts.

But the employment disparities persist, even as academic institutions, private organizations, and the White House pledge to narrow the gap.


Here are five charts that summarize the state of women and STEM in the United States today.

1. A third of women enter college intending to study science or engineering. 
Intentions of freshmen to major in science and engineering fields in 2012
Academic Area Women Men
Biological and agricultural sciences 14.3% 10.8%
Engineering 3.9% 18.3%
Mathematics, statistics, and computer sciences 1.4% 5.2%
Physical sciences 1.9% 3.1%
Social and behavioral sciences 12.0% 8.4%
All science and engineering majors 33.5% 45.8%
SOURCE: National Science Foundation

3. Among the STEM fields, women are more likely to get degrees in the social and biological sciences. 
Percent of Bachelor's degrees awarded to women in each field in 2012
Biological sciences
Social sciences
Agricultural sciences
Mathematics and statistics
Physical sciences
Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences
Computer sciences
SOURCE: National Science Foundation
Globe Staff
4. Jobs in those industries tend to have lower median salaries and large gender pay gaps.
Median annual salary of scientists and engineers employed full time in 2013
Occupation Female Salary Male Salary Gender Pay Gap
Engineering occupations $82,000 $92,000 89%
Computer and information scientist $80,000 $90,000 89%
Mathematical scientist $65,000 $71,000 92%
Social scientist $65,000 $76,000 86%
Physical scientist $61,000 $80,000 76%
Psychologist $59,000 $78,000 76%
Biological/life scientist $58,000 $68,000 85%
SOURCE: National Science Foundation
5. And women still make up less than a quarter of the professors in these departments.
Women as a percentage of full professors with science, engineering, and health doctorates
SOURCE: National Science Foundation
Globe Staff

Catherine Cloutier can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.