Why Do Fewer Christian Women Work in Science?

Elaine Howard Ecklund is a sociologist and the director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University. Robert A. Thomson Jr. is a sociologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

In March of last year, NASA canceled a would-be all-woman spacewalk because it didn’t have enough suits to fit the female astronauts. (By October, it rectified the situation and completed the walk.) For many, the incident highlighted how women are often marginalized in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and are underrepresented in science careers.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins—an outspoken Christian—has also spoken out about science’s glaring need to be more inclusive, especially among leadership. He wrote an open letter stating, “It is time to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels, sometimes wryly referred to as ‘manels.’ ” He now plans to turn down speaking engagements that do not seriously consider other scientists of various backgrounds for the same opportunities.

His concern is backed by data. We studied academic biologists and physicists in eight international contexts, conducted through Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, and found that women accounted for only 17 percent of US physicists. Biology tends to have better gender parity, and yet only 39 percent of US biologists in our sample were women, with most of these concentrated in lower ranks rather than full professorships. Christian women were particularly underrepresented, accounting for only 7 percent of scientists participating in our study, a finding discussed more in our book, Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think about Religion.

And when we look at other social groups that are deeply marginalized in science, the picture becomes even starker. Only 12 percent of US biologists and physicists in our sample were nonwhite women, and of them, only 14 percent were Christian. To make the point even sharper, in our pool of 1,989 US biologists and physicists, there were only 7 black Christian women.

Christian women in science work in a multifaceted context, facing a world not only where they publish less and make less money than their male counterparts but also where religion and science exist in a complicated relationship. Yet their contributions are deeply needed: Solutions to problems we face today might not be solved if they don’t come from all sectors of society.

Religion, science, and gender

Contrary to the popular stereotype, not all scientists are atheists. In fact, we found that nearly a quarter of our US scientists identified as Christian. But in contrast with other sectors of society where sociologists have found atheists to be marginalized, academic science seemingly privileges non-religion. Christians in science are substantially underrepresented in a nation where more than 70 percent of people identify as Christian, and they are particularly underrepresented in the most elite US research universities.

Most scientists do not believe science and religion are inherently in conflict. A Christian physicist we interviewed for our study told us, “I grew up with the notion that you shouldn’t be afraid of knowledge. I learned this both in religion and from science.” That said, scientists identifying as Christian report more discrimination than those with no religious affiliation. About 72 percent of Christians in our sample reported experiencing some form of discrimination, including 28 percent who have perceived the discrimination to be because of their religion, compared to 62 percent of unaffiliated scientists reporting some form of discrimination. A strong majority (65 %) of Christians report that their colleagues have negative attitudes about religion, and unaffiliated scientists don’t necessarily disagree—54 percent of them also say their scientist colleagues have negative attitudes about religion, often (as our research shows) for political rather than religious reasons.

Furthermore, Christian women face barriers in the workplace because of both gender and religion. While our data suggest that Christians actually tend to earn slightly more than non-Christians in science, the Christian advantage in pay for women is nullified by a gender penalty. Our data also reveal that women publish significantly less.

Moreover, 88 percent of Christian women report having been discriminated against in the context of their work—including 26 percent because of their religion and 69 percent because of their gender.

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Source: Christianity Today