Data illuminate a mountain of molehills facing women scientists

From the peer-review process to our very concept of what it means to be brilliant, studies show that women face subtle biases and structural barriers to success in the geosciences.

Every female scientist has a story.

One woman was warned not to wear her wedding ring to job interviews. Another noticed that her adviser showered more praise on his male students. On one occasion, a woman sat silent while the man next to her turned his back to talk to other (male) colleagues for the entire duration of a professional dinner.

What should the women on the receiving end of such slights make of them? They might be random, nothing more than the everyday ups and downs of life as a professional scientist. They could be isolated incidents of sexism. Or they could be symptomatic of broader trends that hinder women in science.

In cases like these, it’s impossible to know. “As an individual, you don’t really have the sample size to come up with this sort of conclusion,” said Jory Lerback, a graduate student at the University of Utah. But now, researchers like Lerback have harnessed the power of data to zoom out and identify systemic problems within the Earth sciences.

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Women have contributed to geology since before Mary Anning became a famous fossil collector in the 1800s. (Portrait by Henry De la Beche, public domain)