12/09/2011 08:37 BST | Updated 12/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Women in Science

When non-scientists learn that I am an astrophysicist, they often ask me if it's lonely being the only women in the lab. This stereotype is ill-founded, since over 40% of PhD students in mathematics, physics and computing in Europe are women (35% for astrophysics in the UK where I did my PhD). In engineering the numbers are not so good, but in my opinion the most urgent problem is not the low number of women entering science, but the low number of women making it to the top jobs in science.

Women in science fall victim to an unfortunate "selection process" called vertical segregation. In science and engineering overall, while boasting reasonable numbers of female PhD students, only 8% of professors are women. When Dame Bell Burnell was appointed professor of astrophysics at the Open University in 1991, she doubled the number of female astrophysics professors in the UK.

Some of this vertical segregation may be due to a generation effect, because the proportion of women professors today is related to the proportion of women PhD students a few decades ago, which was lower than it is today. You can sort this out by looking at the age of professors, and it turns out the generation effect cannot explain the low number of women in the top jobs today.

If only this problem were isolated to science, we might just be able to explain that women's brains are just not wired for doing science at the top, as Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, once suggested (this lead to his resignation). But surprise, surprise, it's not just in science. Throughout academia, this vertical segregation survives. In social sciences, where no one asks if you are the only women in the lab, roughly half of PhD students are women, but less than a fifth of professors are.

Differentstudies have shown that part of this "leaky pipeline" is due to discrimination, sometimes unconscious, but discrimination nonetheless. The blogosphere is crowded with anonymous female scientists venting their frustration of being repeatedly faced with sexist hostilities (just to name one, the amazing Female Science Professor). Others argue that women's career paths are different from men's because of child-rearing, which is particularly difficult to combine with the long-winded and highly competitive selection process in academia (by the way this institutional sexism is also a problem in itself).

Yet outside of academia, where permanent jobs are up for grabs early on in your career, there still is a discrepancy between men and women's careers. A recent study called Pipeline's broken promise showed that women with MBAs were more likely to start their first post-MBA job at a lower position and get paid $4,600 less than their male counterparts. The study showed this was true even when accounting for men and women who did not have children, so child-rearing cannot be the cause. Even outside of university ivory towers and elite MBA executive programmes, women continue to face workplace bias everywhere. A class action suit against Walmart (on behalf of as many as 1.5 million women) was recently dismissed on technical issues, but one of the judges and several specialists commented that there was nonetheless evidence of gender bias.

How can we bridge the gender gap? The Economist recently did a special report on the lack of women at the top and the solution they presented was this: do nothing. They bet the market will self-regulate and that "wise firms will strive to remove barriers for women". I noticed that only 23% of their journalists are women, so I'm not sure their laissez-faire strategy is successful. The conclusion from the European Commission's 160-page report on gender equality in science is quite different. They say that there is absolutely no evidence of a "spontaneous movement towards equality" and that without proactive policies, the gender gap will take decades to close. Why wait more, when women have already waited so long? This reminds me of Nina Simone's song describing the struggle to fight racial inequalities: "To do things gradually / Would bring more tragedy".

So the point is that women in science face exactly the same challenges as professional women in all domains: discrimination, pay gaps and glass ceilings (the European Commission sadly has something called the GCI - the glass ceiling index). Some policies might need to be adapted to the particularities of academia or science, but policies are direly needed in all fields. In my opinion, these policies should address vertical segregation first before they attempt to bring more women into the lower echelons.

Should the Huffington Post have a "women in science" section on their Tech page? I think this is a great idea. Why not go further though and have a "women's" section on your Politics page since the issue is not confined to the world of white lab coats but affects half the world's population. By the way, the Huff Po's US site already has a women's page that has only two sections: 'healthy living 'and 'parents' - in my opinion that page can go.