Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS Absolutely Maybe

Why Pockets and Waves of De-Feminization in Science’s Past Matter Now

I knew there wasn’t a steady, inexorable rise of women in science. I still thought of it as a trajectory of progress though: virtually no women, then a few, and then a few more, then more still. Some exceptions, for sure, but a dynamic, in the end, similar to the kind you see in charts like this one of women’s rising participation in the labor force generally – just much more slowly.

Chart showing the gender gap in US labor force participation from 1900 to 2000

You can get a misleading impression for a few reasons. Here, for example, is a graph of the gender gap in US science and engineering doctorates from 1920 to 1999 [PDF]:

It’s only from 1920, and it’s easy to focus on the upswing and not think too much about the long decline. Doctorates don’t give you enough of the picture either – and neither does lumping together “science” or “science and engineering”. A more realistic picture has important implications for us today. And although for manageability, I’m looking at the US, the issues aren’t entirely unique.

Part of a realistic picture is understanding when women scientists were not just deterred or prevented from getting in the door, but actually pushed out the door – sometimes even in large numbers. For much of science’s history, women in earlier periods had greater opportunities than the current generation, not the other way around.

This is an excerpt from Almira Lincoln Phelps’ Familiar Lectures on Botany, Practical, Elementary and Physiological. It was first published in 1829.

Excerpt from Phelps' "Familiar Lectures on Botany"

Author credit line for the Familiar Lectures, Almira Lincoln

By the end of the century, it had been through 39 editions and more than 375,000 copies were sold – an enormous number for a technical book back then. Nancy Slack writes it was mostly read by women. There were more than 1,100 women known to be seriously involved in botany in the 19th century, and dozens of them made important contributions:

It had indeed become so feminized by 1887 that J.F.A. Adams could write an article in Science titled ‘Is Botany a Suitable Study for Young Men?’ Yet in C. Earle Smith’s lengthy discussion of nineteenth-century American botany, not a single woman is mentioned.

The Botanical Society of America was formed in 1893, emerging from an interest group of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), with only one woman among the charter members. This page has photos of their past presidents. When you scroll up from the bottom, it’s row after row after row of (white) men. With a couple of exceptions, it takes nearly a century for women to be equal (still all white).

From the vantage point of that society’s history, the rise of women to prominence in botany and plant biology looks like a coming of age tale. But it isn’t. It’s more of a comeback story.

I was quietly pasting down botanical specimens, in the breakfast-room upstairs, when…

That 1888 quote distills the social circumstances behind the 19th century’s women botanists: when science was a gentle(wo)man’s pursuit. It’s Mary Kirby writing. She published A Flora of Leicestershire in 1850. Her scientific work began during time she spent in the countryside recuperating from illness, mentored by a naturalist in the area.

The wave of professionalization of science swept many women out. Nancy Glass:

By the end of the century American botany had become largely professionalized; that is, positions were available at universities and in government agencies, botanical societies had been formed (and were increasingly excluding amateurs), and the Ph.D. was becoming a standard qualification.

Women, especially once they were married, were generally excluded. Here are some of those who made it through – at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Bureau of Plant Industry in 1905, with (left to right) Dean Swingle, Agnes Quirk, Florence Hedges, and Alice Haskins. (You can see faces for two of them, with another of their colleagues, Helen Morgenthau Fox, here.)

Photo of a laboratory in 1905

This didn’t only happen among the plants, according to Margaret Rossiter. Marine biology is another of the areas where many of the original pioneers were female. The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts is another example, she writes, of a “rather brutal defeminization under the guise of higher standards”.

Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz and her husband, Louis, started a summer school there in 1873, with 15 women among the first 50 students, 16 in the next 40. Boston women substantially helped fund the MBL that followed, with 3 of the original 8 trustees women. Rossiter writes:

By the late 1890s the scale and power of science had shifted from what could be labeled small-time philanthropy…to the realm of professionals, millionaires, big business, and soon, the big foundations, which few women ever penetrated…(T)he women at Woods Hole were after 1897 back on the outside…Almost all they could do for women thereafter was…raise a modest sum of money to buy an opportunity (a “table”) for a few aspiring women zoologists to work with the male professionals.

Crucially, access for white women to postgraduate education was limited – and as good as non-existent for women of color. The first white woman to gain a PhD in mathematics, for example, was Winifred Edgerton Merrill in 1886. By 1940, 228 white women had been awarded mathematics doctorates – but not a single African-American woman, even though they were more than 10% of the population [PDF].

It was 1943 before the first African-American woman made it to a PhD in mathematics, Euphemia Lofton Haynes:

Photo of Euphemia Haynes

Haynes earned her doctoral degree from Catholic University in Washington DC. That university had admitted some African-Americans early in its history, but segregated around World War I. It didn’t desegregate until 1936 – and that was a couple of decades sooner than many others. Similar barriers for white women had been coming down well before the turn of the century. The experience you just saw in a few other disciplines is evident in mathematics too:

It is sobering to compare the measurable progress of women in academia during the 1970s with that around the turn of this [20th] century. Although recent changes have been impressive, it appears that in the mathematical community, women have merely regained their former position.

Patricia C. Kenschaft (1982)

Part of why it took so long for women overall to regain their early position in science was a wave of defeminization at the end of World War II.

Military veterans, almost all male, flooded into universities, supported by the GI Bill: 7.8 million of them. (The entire population of the US was 140 million in 1945.) Rossiter reports that after an increase in women students during World War II, restrictions and quotas to cap women students were introduced in 1946:

Before long, the percentage of women students on the bulging campuses had dropped to just 25-30 percent, at which level it remained until the 1950s.

Women faculty and deans were “pushed aside”:

Kate Heuvner Mueller, dean of women at Indiana University, described in her autobiography how she was demoted in the spring of 1946. Suddenly, without any warning or advance consultation, she was ousted from her office and given the title “assistant dean of students”…The next year she was given a still more anomalous title: “educational adviser for women students”…

[Psychologist Thelma Alper wrote] in an autobiography, she was so angry at having no future at Harvard that she found it very fitting to leave the Harvard Faculty Club that day not by the women’s side door but by the front door, knowing full well that this was, as she put it, “ganz verboten” (totally forbidden).

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that women were allowed to use the front door, or even sit in a main reading room.

Even at women’s colleges, faculty were demoted and pushed into early retirement: “hurt, confused, and angry”. Psychologist Frances Clayton reported on a list of job ads she saw with 37/50 making clear that only men need apply.

The consequences were far-reaching. By several measures, Rossiter writes, women in science in 1970 were worse off than women in science in 1945. In 1960, outside home economics, there were only 20 women full professors in science at 20 of the major universities – about 1%.

Photos of lounge and spiral staircase
Inside the Harvard Faculty Club in 2008 (by Kelly DeLay)

So feminization is science can reverse – even when women have reached quite substantial levels of participation. Which made me wonder about feminization in professions generally.

Women can break into a profession if the pay or status is low enough to make it undesirable to men. A classic example was librarianship. In the 19th century it was “a new and fast-growing field in need of low-paid but educated recruits”. In the US, the first woman entered the profession in 1852 – and by 1910, 79% of librarians were women. Only teaching was more female. It’s where there’s high levels of prestige and money that it’s uphill for women.

Nanette Fondas looked at studies of the impact of growing female participation in parts of the workforce generally (2001). When the proportion of women becomes high, that can reduce the pay and the status of the occupation – but not always. Whether that happens is determined, she wrote, “by a confluence of job and labor market influences”.

The “professional project”, according to Sharon Bolton and Daniel Muzio (2008), involves:

a systematic attempt by occupations to translate a scarce set of cultural and technical resources into a secure and institutionalized system of occupational and financial rewards so as to pave the way for collective mobility and social advancement.

When it’s an established, male-dominated profession, they point out, feminization is normally associated with marginalization. Even in the most female of professions, there can be stratification and segregation “that relegates women to a lesser career pathway”. It’s a stubbornly persistent pattern. A dominant social group tends to perpetuate its own social status quo, even in ways it’s not aware of.

In 1999, Charlotte Chiu and Kevin Leicht defined “unsuccessful feminization” in an occupation, where increased women’s participation reduces wages for the occupation, increases the gender income gap, and traps women in the less desirable positions. They argue if “equality” is achieved by reducing men’s incomes and prestige and there is male flight from the occupation to greener pastures, that’s not net progress for women. It perpetuates women’s inequality.

Chiu and Leicht looked at the minority of documented cases of successful feminization, and compared them to the more common unsuccessful experience. They concluded:

[O]ccupational feminization is most likely to be successful when (1) employment growth is rapid, (2) graduate or specialized college degrees are important, and (3) wages are increasing…It’s easier for women to get a larger share of the pie when the pie is growing quickly.

They were looking at situations where demand was greater than supply, for both men and women.

Three things about this are particularly striking to me. Those conditions arising are not enough. Consider the experience of women in computer science, whose rise was one of Chiu and Leicht’s few success stories. The fortunes of the profession kept rising, but women didn’t.

Women went from a high of 37% of bachelor degrees in the early 1980s to under 20% recently. Here’s a chart that shows the rise from 1970 and then the dive. The boom of personal computers in the home becoming “a boy thing” and its consequences disadvantaged women: defeminization followed, even while the profession boomed.

The second striking thing, of course, is that demand exceeding supply with rising funding doesn’t describe most parts of science these days. Vulnerability is not evenly distributed in times of economic downturn. And we can see from the past, when it comes to social forces reaching science, what starts as a ripple can turn into a wave that sweeps women away.

The third striking thing is that feminization itself is a misleading term: partial feminization might be a better way to think about what’s happening in science and academia. Opportunity isn’t flowing equally across race and class. If feminization means white women achieving equality with white men, it’s not really “women’s” progress, is it?, and we should stop celebrating it as though it is.

Here is some large scale data from academia generally that brings this issue into clear relief. The women here are, if anything, less racially diverse than the men. (The “white only” proportion of the US population is 77%, and non-hispanic/latino white only people are about 60%; people of two or more races, under 3%.)

Full-time faculty & full professors, all fields, degree-granting post-secondary institutions in 2013

(National Center for Education Statistics)

Race Female Faculty Male Faculty Female Professors Male Professors
White 35% 43% 26% 58%
Black 3% 3% 1% 2%
Hispanic 2% 2% 1% 2%
Asian/Pacific Islander 4% 6% 2% 7%
Total 35% 43% 26% 58%

What about feminization and race in sciences specifically? Is the advancement of women coupled with progress in diversity there?

One of the most rapidly feminizing science-based professions is veterinary medicine, with half the practitioners and nearly 80% of the students (Irvine and Vermilya, 2010). Now let’s look at US labor force data for 2014 [PDF]. It was the second whitest professional group in the labor force data: 95% white. Only pilots and aircraft engineers were whiter.

In the NSF’s data digest for 2015, psychology is the most female science-degree-based occupation (73%). According to the labor force data, psychologists are 91% white, which is at the high end of whiteness too. The American Psychological Association (APA) cites American Community Survey data on this, which is more positive, but still not great: in 2013, racial/ethnic minority groups were 16% of psychologists, compared with 40% of the workforce and 26% for the doctoral/professional workforce.

This is unacceptable for the individuals who miss out on following their preferred profession, or have to struggle with social peer isolation, deliberate discrimination, and unthinking bias. It matters for human knowledge, too.

Diagram showing how lack of diversity over-samples for mediocrity

There are problems science needs to solve that require a combination of very unusual talents and proclivities – and aspects of the life wouldn’t appeal to all of the people with those talents, either. The odds of people landing in a position to make a difference we badly need can be small. Society can’t afford to reduce those odds even further because of gender and racial bias.

What’s more, as science bachelor degrees become more equally distributed, if science careers don’t become more female- and minority-friendly, society’s in trouble. As Timothy Ley and Barton Hamilton pointed out in their 2008 paper on NIH grant applications, if disproportionate career attrition for women continues, “this country will probably experience a shortage of biomedical scientists in the near future”.

There’s a lot to learn from the uneven, often stalled, and sometimes backward-sliding process of feminization in science. Rossiter wrote that the post-WWII “golden age” for science was a “very dark age” for women in academia. If science faces contraction – and even if it doesn’t – there’s no sugar-coating it. We all have to look very hard at what we’re doing now if we want to remove social barriers for scientists. Life, and science, will be much better if we do.


Photo of 6 University of Pennsylvania students

1921: University of Pennsylvania delegates to the national convention of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. (There were only 5 African-American women undergraduates at that University in 1918 when some some of these women founded this sorority chapter.) 

Who they were (future surname) (future career)

Front (left to right):

  1. Virginia Alexander (physician)
  2. Julia Mae Polk (Parham) (professor of education)
  3.  Sadie Tanner Mossell (Alexander) (first African-American woman PhD in economics – plus law degree and President of JFK’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law)

Back (left to right): 

  1. Anna Johnson (Julian) (first African-American woman PhD in sociology, civic activist, college chairman, half of an African-American science/community power couple)
  2. Nellie Rathbone Bright (also studied at the Sorbonne and University of Oxford, educator, painter, poet)
  3. Pauline Alice Young (librarian, teacher, activist – she participated in the Selma march, the March on Washington, and worked with W.E.B. DuBois)


NOTE: This post was published on 28 July 2017. Because of some odd bug I’ve never encountered before, Word Press has dated it by the date I began the post, not the date it was published.

Sources for US workforce participation by gender: 1900 Census [PDF], and from 1950 – US Department of Labor, civilian labor [PDF].

Excerpt from page 189 of Almira Lincoln Phelps’ “Familiar Lectures on Botany” via Wikimedia Commons.

The photo in the Bureau of Plant Industry in 1905 is from Margaret Rossiter’s, Women Scientists in America: a US government photo from the National Archives and Records Service.

The photo of Euphemia Lofton Haynes is her yearbook photo from Smith College in 1914, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photos of a lounge and spiral staircase inside the Harvard Faculty Club in 2008 by Kelly DeLay on flickr (CC-BY 2.0).

Photo from the 1921 Delta Sigma Theta national convention via Wikimedia Commons. Sources to establish Julia Mae Polk’s later surname and career: here and here.

The cartoon is my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.)

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  1. I am curious whether you came across current percentages of women in biomedical sciences that made it to the professor level in academia? It seems there are few opportunities and even less guidance in getting that position.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Related Posts
Back to top