In 2003 Milner-Gulland et al. wrote a paper on extreme adult sex ratios in saiga antelope. Males had become so rare in some years that the behavior of the system became dysfunctional and population performance suffered catastrophically. The only other environments where I know of heavily skewed adult sex ratios are university science faculties. Except here the skew is in the other direction, with females being rare. Social scientists have shown that skewed sex ratios in the workplace can negatively impact many performance metrics (e.g. Fenwick and Neal 2001).
Many scientists are rightly concerned by the paucity of women on the faculty of many science departments, and there has been much contemplation on the causes of attrition as more men progress from Ph.D. to post-doc to a faculty position to full professor than women. There are hypotheses proposed to explain this ranging from men being more likely than women to express the traits thought to aid success in academia including self-belief and an ability to brush off criticism, through to a lack of adequate home life provision. However, identification of these causes does not seem to be having much of an effect on reducing the skewed sex ratio. For example, of 43 researchers offered prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowships this year, 41 were men (see here). I am not entirely surprised by this. Many ‘solutions’ I have heard proposed to address the skewed sex ratio problem seem unlikely to succeed. For example, one popular call is for women’s groups to be set up. No one has ever succeeded in explaining to me how that is supposed to lead to change.
Whatever the proximate reasons for the skewed sex ratio, the possible ultimate solutions are clear. It is demographically obvious how to modify adult sex ratios. You either eradicate any differential mortality rates between the sexes at each age or stage, or you skew the birth sex ratio to ensure the adult sex ratio is close to unity. Clearly I am not going to advocate any mechanisms to actually elevate the mortality rate of male scientists but it is clear how to reduce the loss of women to science at each of the career transitions where attrition occurs. You mandate the appointment of equal numbers of men and women at each level. So the Royal Society would appoint an equal number of male and female URFs, and 50% of faculty positions and full professorships would go to women. I don’t have a strong opinion of how this is done, but suspect a change in the law may be necessary. Sex-specific job calls, or a mandate that a moving window of previous appointments must not stray between 45% and 55% are two possible mechanisms. There will be other possibilities too.
Such an idea will doubtless generate some dissent. What if you don’t end up appointing the best person because it happened to be a female only job call and a fabulous man wanted to apply? If we are serious about addressing the skewed sex ratio problem then this is a cost we may occasionally have to bear. To my mind, it is a lower cost than hearing of another excellent woman leaving science because she couldn’t find a way to progress. Another argument likely to be raised might be what if there are just insufficient women studying for undergraduate degrees in a particular subject? I will assume that when the majority of people start their Ph.D. studies they envisage a career in academia. So start with the sex ratio of applications to study for a Ph.D. and set mandated targets on that sex ratio rather than a sex ratio of unity. Another argument I have heard raised – primarily by men – is that women won’t want to feel they are being advantaged. Given the current skewed sex ratio, men must be being advantaged, and I don’t hear too many men complaining. I imagine women will be able to cope with a level playing field.
I suspect that once a mandated system has been in place for a generation it could be removed and the sex ratio problem would not return. Although we may never fully understand all the reasons that led to the skewed sex ratio problem we experience today, we will at least have cured the ill. And personally I’d rather be rid of the problem while not completely understanding it, than fully understanding it and not having solved it. In the meantime, as well as implementing mandating we should also pursue other initiatives to improve working academic conditions for both men and women.
I am fed up of hearing about the problem of too few women in science coupled with inaction. I am also fed up of listening to solutions I cannot see working. We need to get our house in order, and there is a way of doing this. I’d be interested to hear what is to stop us levelling the playing field so men and women both have an equal chance of progressing through the ranks.
Senior Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology
Fenwick, G.D., and Neal, D.J.. “Effect of gender composition on group performance.” Gender, Work & Organization 8.2 (2001): 205-225.
Milner-Gulland, E. J., et al. “Conservation: reproductive collapse in saiga antelope harems.” Nature 422.6928 (2003): 135-135.