Surprises Across the Cultural Divide (Abstract)


An article that looks into hard data on cross-cultural female participation in science, what proportion of total faculty and students are women and contradictions of stereotypes about national cultures and how women are treated.


When Jim Megaw of York University in Ontario noticed a surprising lack of hard data on cross-cultural female participation in science, he attempted to collect data on his own. Four hundred physics departments around the world responded to a questionnaire sent out to over 1000 departments asking for data on what proportion of their faculty and students were women. The findings seemed to contradict stereotypes about national cultures and how they treat women.

The results are not those that Megaw expected. As of 1994,

  • Hungary, Portugal, and the Philippines have, respectively, the highest number of female physicists.
  • In these countries, women represent 30% to 47% of faculty.
  • Women represent 27% to 60% of physics students receiving PhD's.

The United States, Britain, and Canada all have large physics establishments, high levels of industrial development, and strong women's rights movements, but the lowest levels of women in physics.

  • Women represent less than 5% of physics faculty.
  • Fewer than 12% of physics students receiving PhD's are women.

Marcia Barinaga writes, "Social scientists interpret data like Megaw's as indicating that culture is a powerful influence on how well women do in science." By interviewing two dozen women with science experience in more than one culture, Science points to these factors as influential across cultures:

  • A country's level of economic development.
  • The status of science within a country.
  • The class structure.
  • The education system.
  • The presence of or absence of support systems for combining work and family life.

Advanced Countries, Entrenched Systems

Only a small amount of systematic international data on women in science is available. However, a few studies show that countries now undergoing economic development, such as Mexico, Argentina, and the nations of Eastern Europe, have 20% to 50% women scientific researchers. This compares with under 10% in the United States and northern European countries such as Germany.

Although these countries do have a firmly-placed glass ceiling beyond which women do not advance, researchers like Beatriz Ruivo of Portugal speculate that nations "that have had large scientific establishments for centuries" also established science and technology as a uniquely male domain "during an era when women weren't in the labor market," while nations that began developing science and technology in the twentieth century had societies more welcoming to women's participation. Thus it was easier for women to establish themselves in scientific fields.

Science As a Low-Status Occupation

Barinaga informs us of a growing sociological literature across cultures showing that the lower the status and pay of an occupation, the more likely it is that women will be found in it. Science is not exempt from this tendency. In countries where industry and research are not strongly integrated, scientific research is seen more often as a "cultural activity," with low status and low pay. Men find this undesirable, and the field is then left open to women. Several studies in the former Soviet Union show that "a very high percentage of physicians were women. . . but that was not considered a high prestige position. The pay wasn't good. It was considered more like [the United States] views] nursing. The scientific occupations that were highly valued were held by men."

That Touch of Class

A nation's class structure may also open the field to women. If social class counterbalances gender (for instance if a rich woman is held in higher esteem than a poor man), then the class system may work to the benefit of educated, privileged women.

One anecdote was told of a woman who worked in Mexico after obtaining her Ph.D. in England. The middle-class male observatory technicians would treat her with respect in the lab, yet while riding down the mountain in a truck, they would "stop and whistle at every woman on the street. . . Only the upper classes are viewing women as equals."

Satisfying the Requirements

Several interviewees firmly believed that the several years of science and math courses required by their cultures' education system, worked to everyone's advantage. The requirement gave male and female students a chance to really try science and see if they liked it. Polish-born Iwona Sakrejda says that in America, "It is too easy to get out of science," which students often do because the one-year crash courses available in American high schools have "a tough reputation." Italian scientist Chiara Nappi points out that mandating yearly math and science courses keeps women from closing the doors on themselves before they reach a university.

Nappi also notes that since many chemistry, biology, and physics courses are optional, only the most gifted students are willing to take them. She deplores the notion (often subtly presented) that either you have talent in math and science or you don't, and that if "you have it, you can take any amount of that subject. If you don't, you should take none." Nappi observes the philosophy in Italy and other southern European countries that "you can learn" even if one must struggle in order to do so, which tends to better motivate women.

Single-sex schools also seem to make a positive difference for women. York's Megaw notice that women represented better in predominantly Catholic countries, where they were more likely to have attended a single-sex school. A 1992 survey found that 58% of the female members of the British Institute of Physics had attended a girls' school through age 16--dramatically higher than the national average of 13%.

Family-Friendly Societies

The survey found that women's experiences and their persistence in science are dramatically affected by:

  • Social attitudes and policies toward child care.
  • Flexible work schedules.
  • The role of men in families.

Astrophysicist Sara Beck compares working in the U.S. to working in Israel: The U.S.A. is just a horrible place to try to raise a family and have a career. When I was working in the U.S.A., it was a struggle to find decent day care. . .and if I missed a half-day of work [because] my kid had a temperature of 104, I was lectured on how this let down the [department]. In Israel there is three months, paid maternity leave, there are day-care centers on every block, and if you don't take off from work for your kid's birthday party the department chairman will lecture you on how important these things are to kids and how he never missed one while his kids were little.

Computer scientist Maria Paola Bonacina notes that in the U.S. : The way the universities are structured, the kinds of demands that are put on faculty are the kind of demands that can be fulfilled by someone who has a wife at home.

The Protestant work ethic of Germany, Canada, and the U.S. is considered by some to be predicated on the service of women behind the working men. Barinaga concludes by stating that A healthier life for societies surely must include changes that enable women to achieve economic equality with men and support systems for balancing the competing demands of work and family life. Solutions will depend on class structure, work ethics, and systems of education.

abstract by Juliet Midgley.

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Cite this page: "Surprises Across the Cultural Divide (Abstract)" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/4/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 11, 2016 <>