Women in palaeontology – where are they?

Today, news made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter about the abjectly low number of female authors on palaeotology papers. See here. Below is my unreflected take on this. Because many people will be too hectic to read it all, here’s a two point summary:

1) there are gender differences, and we must simply accept them, not try to undo them.
2) said differences plus prejudices lead to genders being treated differently (usually to the disadvantage of women), resulting in different chances and opportunities for equally capable individuals. We need to stop this unfair practice, and we must actively counteract unfair treatment outside science that influences chances and opportunities in science!

NOTE: I am only talking about things past school – talking about people society hands science as first semester students at university. Before that, unfair and stupid things take place, but I will ignore them for this post.

Is there really any more to say? Well, yes, there is. First of all, the low number of female authors is in part an effect of worse circumstances in the past. Not too long ago women were not allowed to attend university, then they were allow to, but not able to hold a job in science, then they were accepted as lab technicians but not anything higher up, and so on. In part, the 17% female author figure stems from the fact that a science career lasts typically between a decade and a half-century. Even if all things were absolutely even and fair today, it would take a half-century to get the effect of the past out of the system. Go to the site linked above and change between “all years” and “1991-2010”. You can see how all numbers for females go up. Thus, I want more detailed data 🙂

Secondly, I do not need more detailed data to see that things aren’t perfectly even and fair today. In fact, they are far from even and fair. For one thing, women have an uterus, men do not. As a direct result, women bear children, men do not. Thus, on average, the career of a female is interrupted by a period in which she can barely work (if at all), has massive hormone changes going on in her body several times, changes that are known to massively influence risk-taking behaviour and memory (and if she has more than one child this all is repeated). Sadly, doing science is typically a precarious employment. You go from one time-limited grant to the next, you need to stitch your income together from several grants and teaching assignments, you need to move every few years, etc. Additionally, it is a “much away” profession: you do a lot of travelling. Both things are harder on women than on men, on average, because evolution has selected for a low willingness to take risks in mothers. I know several very smart, diligent women who did not go into science despite a strong interest simply because they did not want to suffer through the ridiculousness of grant writing. I fully understand, I get ulcers from just thinking about the grant vetting process and the unkept promises of processing time by funding agencies! But women – even those who do not have children yet – have a lower tolerance for all this sh*t.

Also, the “down-time” means that women compare badly versus men of the same age with regards to experience and number of papers. That’s utterly unfair – if you compare people you need to compare worktime, not age. Luckily, some funding agencies do ask people to explain “career breaks” in grant applications, and thus discount such  “down-times” when assessing them. Idiotically, these years often do not count for wage or pensions.

Fourth, there is a clear difference (again – on average; I know quite some exceptions) in how gender-typical behaviour (be it “natural” or trained-on by society) results in authorship percentages: on average, men are more willing than women to toss out a half-cooked paper, or push their name onto a paper where they only deserve a “thank you” in the acknowledgements. Thus, men tend to publish more, but lower average quality. This is one gender-typical difference I wish peer-review would cancel out.

More? Lots – but not now. Right now I am too angry thinking of all the great people science has lost because of all this nonsense, and of all my female colleagues who suffer from direct or indirect prejudices and discrimination!

(incidentally, isn’t it cool that I can say: in my experience, lesbians, homosexuals and transgender people suffer much less in science that in average society?)

About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy
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13 Responses to Women in palaeontology – where are they?

  1. Victoria says:

    Heinrich, I’m glad you’re bringing attention to this problem, and I think we are probably on the same page for the most part, but I need to comment on a couple of points you raise:

    “Thus, on average, the career of a female is interrupted by a period in which she can barely work (if at all)”
    While it is true that women must gestate and give birth, and some women choose to breastfeed after the birth of a child, when it comes right down to it the actual period of time when a woman physically CANNOT work at science isn’t necessarily that great (barring any medical problems, of course). I think this idea stems from the fact that (at least in North America) our culture expects mothers to take on the bulk of childcare immediately after a child is born. This problem is in some ways easy to solve by increasing access to paternity leave or just parental leave, rather than maternity leave. On the other hand, I think we’re a long way off of totally-equal parenting responsibilities in *most* (not all!) households. I don’t really understand why the birth of a child necessarily results in much more time loss for a mother than for a father.

    “Both things are harder on women than on men, on average, because evolution has selected for a low willingness to take risks in mothers.”
    References, please? Just…these kinds of broad-sweeping evo-psych statements make me cringe. How would this even apply to the ‘risks’ we take in science? I just have a hard time believing that natural selection has made me ill-equipped to take risks in my career, rather than, say, cultural narratives about the responsibilities women should take on.

    “But women – even those who do not have children yet – have a lower tolerance for all this sh*t.”
    How can you possibly know this? And do you not hear the condescension in such a statement?

    Your comments about authorship practices probably need some stats backing them up, but I agree that this is an area where cultural upbringing differs between men and women, and I agree that this is an area where everyone would benefit from revised practices! And it is good to know that you are here as an ally for your female colleagues. But I think, as a planet, we need to move past these ideas that there are fundamental biological differences that make women not as good at science as a career – there isn’t really evidence to back that up, and it doesn’t address any of the real, solvable problems out there.

    • Victoria, thanks for your comments. You are wrong on a few points, though.

      1) My wife has been through pregnancies and three breast-feeding times (three, in fact). So have friends and colleagues. I know what I talk about when I say that the involved hormonal changes (can – YMMV) make it much harder to work in science. Yes indeed, there is much more going on, and you are right that our culture makes things a lot worse.
      2) “risk taking” refers to the precarious employment. References are the many women I have met who shied away from the time-limited jobs in research, many took lower-paying and career-limiting but permanent jobs as lab techs or with publishers etc. Yes, not a representative sample you may say, but more than a dozen is enough for me. Usually, they’d say things like “I’m not stupid and PLAN on being unemployed right when I have to take care of children” or “Nah, you can do this bet-on-a-grant thing, but it is not for me.” Pretty obvious, hu?

      So, no, no condescension, but in fact a >10 year sample of smart women I know not opting for a research position. 😦 Whether that attitude is partly culture-trained: see my last paragraph in this comment. Same for the authorship (and, btw, I have seen the same thing in business, where on average women are less willing to cheat people in contracts than men are). My experience, but the results are so massively skewed that I can’t believe the entire picture is much different

      As I mentioned, there are factors outside science (and biology), and as I mentioned I wasn’t taking about them.

      • Victoria says:

        Thanks for your reply Heinrich. Perhaps I have misunderstood what you mean when you say ‘biology’ – perhaps you are referring to biology as a discipline, rather than innate biological differences, and in that case I agree that most of the problems with low retention of women in higher-level scientific disciplines has to do with large-scale societal issues and structural issues within academia. What I disagree with is the generalization that WOMEN as a unit are less risk-averse because of evolution and babies or something, and that means we aren’t as good at science as a career. When you describe the women you have known who have avoided science as a career because of the risks involved with employment, the first thing that occurs to me is not “Oh! Because evolution! And this must apply to all women.” but “Oh, there are deep-seated problems related to sexism in society as a whole and in academia, and we should work on addressing those problems bit by bit.”
        If you think that the success or non-success of women in science boils down to anatomy, then that is kind of condescending (in both directions!) and also isn’t really helpful because there’s not much we can do about anatomical differences. Like I said, I think for the most part we agree, and I’m glad that this topic is receiving attention in the palaeo community.

        • See, Vic, you’re reading this entirely wrong.
          There are biological differences, and yes, overall, they tend to make women of reproductive age less willing to take long-term risks (maybe with an added filter caused by our society).
          No, that does not mean women are not as good at science, but it does mean that the way science careers are organized leads to more women deciding not to pursue them. Which means we must structure funding and career options differently.
          There is a study on such issues – way more sophisticated than my crude reasoning based on a handful of cases – that Colin McHenry pointed me to on facebook:


          Additionally, you seem to say that there are no biological factors associated with child bearing that inhibit research activities. That’s simply wrong:
          – hormonal changes during pregnancy and breast-feeding make it harder to concentrate
          – breast-feeding (can only be done by the mother) makes you unable to work flexible times
          that ALONE are two reasons why women, without their fault, will get slowed down and produce fewer papers during the years where they have small children (unless they decide to go the way a colleague did and turn them over to a nanny from day one. But who can pay for that on a researcher’s wage?).

          Obviously, ” success or non-success of women in science boils down to anatomy” is not true. But it does play a role in why women succeed less in the unfair system we have, and why we should change it. There are thousands of other reasons, too, but trying to pretend that biology is not a factor would mean that we should not account and correct for it – which would continue the massive disadvantage for women.

          • and yes, Vic, there is quite sure “Oh, there are deep-seated problems related to sexism in society as a whole and in academia, and we should work on addressing those problems bit by bit.” – however, you’re here talking about the general phenomenon, whereas I am talking about how a specific form of it falls out, because the classic, all-men orientated science funding scheme falls together with an evolution-caused difference between men and women to disadvantage women. You’re looking at the general pattern, I am looking at the mechanics of the example.

            Nobody ever said “oh, let’s structure science funding so women are more likely to quit”. But nobody ever said – as many should have: “oh, let’s re-structure science funding so that we don’t disadvantage women!”

            (and yes, this is a generalization about the majority, with science having a pretty large minority of women and men who free themselves from stereotypes and gender roles and manage to make things work. But then, 12 out of some 40 or so women quitting because of the insecurity of funding is quite a lot – and that’s what I personally experienced. Whereas I know of only two (2!) men who quit science because they were afraid they could not support their children.

            • Victoria says:

              Ok, I think I we really do generally agree here – science careers ARE organized such that, if a woman wants to have children, it can coincide right with a time period when your employment situation is a bit precarious. And yes, that does boil down to some basic biology (ie. you do need to take some amount of time off for the final bits of gestation, and birth, and immediately after the birth, and also that there is an upper age limit for women to physically bear children). What I’m reacting to is the idea that *evolution* has made ALL women less likely to take risks, period, because we are the ones to give birth. It’s a big generalization that cannot be tested, and the fact that many women drop out of science careers to have children probably has more to do with the way the job is structured, like you said. Changes to the way grant funding and tenure work would probably go a long way towards helping more women stay in science.

              • Oh, sorry, Vic – I see where we talk past each other!
                Obviously, I was generalizing, which means that what I wrote is not meant to be true in ALL women, and true to differing degrees in those it applies to. Obviously, there are women who suffer no ill consequences from pregnancy, there are others who are unable to work from the first month on. Similarly, there are women who have no job risks when they have their children.
                However, the vast majority of women are not on permanent jobs when they have their children, and their current job is typically limited to at most two more years after birth. Discount one year from that at 50% work ability due to breastfeeding and baby care (even if the father takes a fair share or more of the load), and you get a 25% productivity loss on average. That is, in fact, what I see happening to colleagues!

                And as I tried to explain before: this is NOT because evolution made women bad scientists, but because science work has been structured to be unsuitable for women with newborns.

                Similarly, risk-taking behaviour is different in men and women, but obviously again both genders show variation. There are female rodeo champions, and there are a lot of male sissies. On average, though, across a larger sample, you will see less willingness among women to put up with the risks and the uncertainties than among men.

                Have I made myself clearer now? 🙂

                Additionally, I guess I have a somewhat different perspective because the funding situation here in Germany is different from the US, too – no teaching jobs makes it more of a win-or-loose gamble than in the US, where you can somehow survive on teaching assignments if a grant fails. Here, you typically either get your grant or you are on the dole.

  2. Lab Lemming says:

    It would also help if people like the disgraced professor Josh Smith didn’t try to rape so many of his students.

    • LabLemming, I don’t think this is as prevalent as some seem to think. On the other hand, this topic is one of those that got me to end my post earlier than planned before my temper got the better of me. Because in the small sample I know there are two victims I know of for sure, and two more where I have a strong suspicion that inappropriate advances played a role in their science career ends.

  3. Jake says:

    Dude, you’re a scientist and you’re coming here with statements like “I have seen” and “My experience” and “the many women I have met”.

    • Dude, “Dude” is entirely the wrong attitude, next instance gets you banned.
      To answer your idiotic criticism, there is no comprehensive study to cite. I have explained what my data base is, so get lost now.

  4. Pingback: More on women in palaeontology | dinosaurpalaeo

  5. Pingback: More on women in palaeontology | dinosaurpalaeo

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