Nature has a series of articles on diversity in science this week (Nature 448, 97; July 2007)

“the issue goes well beyond equal rights. As the demographics in, for example, the United States change, it is imperative that women and under-represented minorities have the chance to contribute — not only because they deserve to, but because the scientific enterprise of the future needs their contribution if it is to remain healthy, vibrant and talent-rich. Barriers related to cultural mores, money or child-bearing prevent talented scientists from pursuing research, effectively shrinking the applicant pool. “

In “Beyond the Glass Ceiling,” the usual appalling stats on women and diverse groups leaving the pipeline are presented. Nature did a good job of mentioning the one factor increasingly important in the equation: Money. If you owe tens of thousands in student loans, you don’t want to spend years hanging out in PostDocs.

Nature Stats

Note that the professorial stats include some of the humanities, so the proportions reported here are probably higher than reality for non-whites and women.

Later in the article, there is a very important, and I think telling quote:

“They see me work 8–12 hours a day, seven days a week for a job that pays only two-thirds of your salary, meanwhile you have to hustle the other third of your salary and grant money constantly,” says Warner. “ [Warner is a chemistry prof at LSU]

As someone who works with undergraduates, I have to tell you this is the #1 reason they say they have no interest in working in Academia. It is also something I hear from nearly every grad student.

I can’t tell you how many promising students sit in my office and tell me they are not going to grad school, or not considering a faculty track, because they see what it’s doing to their faculty advisors. And I hear that from men and women, majority and minority groups.

Why does it matter who is a professor?

Lots of research shows it’s important for underrepresented groups to see people like themselves in careers they wish to pursue. It’s easier to persist in a difficult career path if you can see that others have succeeded before you (and that you are not, therefore, a freak).

As a woman in entomology, I can tell you all about feeling like you’ve somehow made a mistake in your career choice. A man pursuing entomology is an unusual eccentricity. A woman interested in bugs…well, clearly her parenting was inadequate. :D

I walked away from my last tenure track position because it was, literally, killing me. While I miss my research, I know absolutely that I did the right thing. (For one thing, I’m actually at home writing this, and it’s around 10pm.)

Until our broken Academic system is changed, I don’t expect much other change in those pipeline numbers.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. When they discuss under-representation by minorities (it always boggles me how half the population becomes a minority, albeit women are way-under-represented), they end up focusing upon “minority” as being racial/cultural groups. This leaves out the largest minority of all, people with disabilities, which are some 14-20% of the population (depending upon whether you’re using UK, Canadian or US stats). I have a MSc Entomology, and my only “mistake” in taking that degree was thinking I could get employment using it, inside or outside of academia.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really, really like academia as a social and intellectual realm. But as an economic-cultural profession, it sucks pond scum in the worst way. It’s profoundly irrational, too. Society disses science, but wants the benefits of science. Research businesses and universities and government want research done and acknowledges the need for more researchers, but they make it profoundly difficult to become one in terms of time and energy cost. The graduate students and post-docs and professors spend too much time trying to get funding, and over-work themselves trying to accomplish research under insane conditions to get published, just so they can continue to chase research dollars and publishing and … It’s a business system designed to chase money, not to teach students and enlist professionals and build knowledge.

    But you know, we live in a culture where wealth is seen as a sign of moral righteousness, and “truthiness” is more important than accurate fact-based conclusions.


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