Women in STEM Face Significant Challenges in Sex Discrimination

One-hundred and fifty-five years ago this month, biologist Nettie Stevens was born.  In 1906, Stevens answered a question that had puzzled scientists for thousands of years: how do babies become male and female?  Through years of dedicated research at Bryn Mawr College, Stevens discovered that sex chromosomes determine gender and in the process jumpstarted modern genetics.

Yet when Stevens made her discovery, she did not receive credit.  Instead, credit went to a man – Edmund Beecher Wilson.  Wilson published a similar study at the same time as Stevens and, despite that he only arrived at his conclusion on sex determination after viewing Stevens’s findings and his conclusions were not as correct, he still received all the recognition.  Like many female scientific pioneers, including Rosalind Franklin, whose work was critical in discovering DNA, and Lise Meitner, whose work led to the discovery of nuclear fission, Stevens’s work was sidelined in favor of a male colleague, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Matilda Effect.”

More than a century after Stevens was not given credit for her groundbreaking discovery, women in the sciences are still subject to the “Matilda Effect,” along with the discrimination and sexism that created it.  From graduate researchers to experts in their respective fields, women at every level of their STEM careers are at a distinct disadvantage when compared to their male counterparts.

In the area of science training, for instance, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study found that male faculty are less likely than female faculty to hire female trainees to work in their labs.  Only 21 percent of tenured science professors across the country are female, making it difficult for female students to find opportunities to advance their science education and creating a cycle of disproportionate representation.

Indeed, with each higher level in the STEM educational hierarchy, proportionately fewer women are represented.  In biology, for instance, while 52 percent of biology Ph.D.s are women, that number shrinks to 39 percent at the postdoctoral level, and women make up only 18 percent of tenured science professors.  Cornell University found that, at current rates, it could take nearly another century before women constitute 50 percent of STEM faculty.

Even if a woman in STEM makes it past the obstacles in education, she still faces significant challenges in entering the workforce.  Many of the building blocks that go into forming an application for a STEM position, from letters of recommendation to teaching evaluations, are biased in favor of male applicants.  A University of Arizona study found that while men are often described by their abilities in letters of recommendation and teaching evaluations, women are described by their work ethic.  Another study found that letters of recommendation for women used adjectives such as helpful, kind, and warm, while letters of recommendation for men used adjectives such as confident, daring, and independent.  These differences have a significant effect on hiring, but a Yale University study found that even when the same language is used, male candidates are still favored over female ones.

Past the hiring stage, women in STEM face another challenge in the wage gap.  Women in computers and mathematics are paid 87 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.  In engineering, women are paid 82 percent of what their male counterparts make.  The most egregious wage gap is in physics and astronomy, where women earn a mere 60 percent of their male colleagues.  The pay gap starts at initial salary offers – a 2012 study found that employers are more willing to offer male applicants a higher salary for a lab position than an equally qualified female applicant.  An Ohio State University study found that one year after graduation, women with Ph.D.s make 31 percent less than men.

Correia & Puth attorneys are dedicated to working to eradicate sex discrimination, including in the scientific fields.  Correia & Puth attorneys have represented numerous female scientists in government, government funded, and private sector positions.  As in other male-dominated fields, female scientists often face acute workplace challenges, including in particular fair advancement and allocation of resources in comparison to their male peers.  Women can also encounter unfair discipline and dismissal in circumstances their male scientist counterparts would not face.

A web of federal, state and local laws protect women from workplace discrimination, as well as discrimination in higher education. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sex discrimination in employment, including discrimination in pay and benefits.  Local and state laws such as the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, Maryland’s Human Rights Law, and county laws in Montgomery County and Prince Georges County also provide powerful tools to combat and challenge illegal sex discrimination in the workplace.

The federal Equal Pay Act (EPA) also serves as legal recourse for pay inequality, prohibiting pay discrimination on the basis of gender, requiring employers to pay similarly situated employees the same wage regardless of whether the employee is a male or female.  Both the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also provide protections against sex discrimination.  Title IX of prohibits sex-based discrimination and retaliation in education, including on the basis of stereotypes, harassment, and in resources.  Title IX prohibits sex discrimination and retaliation in all areas of education, including STEM programs. Schools have an obligation to ensure that their STEM courses and programs are free from sex discrimination, and students are able to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or in court when they experience violations of the law.

These laws also protect against retaliation, which is particularly important in a field where many women scientists may fear reporting discrimination with the risk of injuring their hard-earned career. The web of legal protections from retaliation is comprehensive and fact-specific, protecting against retaliation in the form of wrongful termination and other adverse actions that would “dissuade a reasonable employee” from complaining about their legal rights.

At Correia & Puth, PLLC, our experienced attorneys represent both private and federal sector employees and students in sex discrimination claims.  If you think you are experiencing or have experienced discrimination in educational opportunities, hiring, or pay, contact us to discuss your rights in every step of the EEO process.