Women's Salaries in Life Sciences One-Third Less

A major salary survey of professionals in the life sciences reveals that wage gaps start out small, but inequities between genders accumulate over a long career resulting in deep divides. Typically, men in the field earn one-third more than women.

Catherine Didion

(WOMENSENEWS)-Biological sciences may be a comfortable career path for many women, but it is significantly less financially rewarding and cushy for them than for men, according to a major salary survey published today in the journal Science.

The survey, completed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was based on responses from almost 9,000 life scientists and it examined salaries by field of study, position, sex, size of institution and years since receiving a degree. Researchers also asked respondents about job satisfaction and advancement opportunities.

The mid-range of salaries for surveyed life scientists working in an academic setting increased by 7 percent, from $75,000 in May 2000 to $80,000 in May 2001. Those working in industry did even better, with median compensation increasing from $90,000 to $96,000 in the past year. For comparison, the average non-farm worker in the United States earns about $25,500 per year. With a $70,000 salary, the typical female biologist does a lot better than that, but a typical male life scientist's wages at $94,000 are still about one-third more.

The survey indicated that the salary differences are small at first, but they build throughout lengthy careers. At the level of postdoctoral researchers and assistant professors, the earnings gap between men and women is moderate (between $6,000 and $8,000), but at the level of university administrators and chief executive officers it increases to about $40,000.

Many factors contribute to the discrepancy: On average, men have been working in science longer than women; more men practice in the higher-paying field of medicine; and women tend to work in academic settings, which pay less than industry. But even when those differences are accounted for, men and women earn significantly different salaries.

To view charts related to this article, go to:

Dismiss Stale Arguments That Women Not Long Enough in Top Posts

Similar results have appeared in National Science Foundation reports and biannual studies of the American Chemical Society over the past decade. The explanations that women haven't been in senior positions long enough to earn salaries on par with men's "is beginning to be a very stale argument," says Catherine Didion, executive director of the Association of Women in Science. She also takes issue with the notion that women choose smaller, less competitive institutions, saying, "Women tend to vote with their feet after they've experienced unsupportive environments elsewhere."

She attributes the earnings gap to a complex mixture of issues, including differing approaches to publication by women and men, departmental expectations for raises and promotions that are not clearly articulated and the "captive spouse" syndrome, in which a woman may stay at an institution that is not ideal for her because her husband, who often earns more, holds a solid position there.

One of the primary criteria for promotion in academia is a solid record of publications, yet men and women often have very different approaches to writing papers. In one of the few studies to address the issue directly, Gerhard Sonnert, a Harvard University physicist, found that women tend to write fewer papers, but attempt a more substantial synthesis in the ones they do write. They also tend to publish more book chapters and symposia, whereas men are likely to publish more frequently and in higher-profile journals. For an administrator from a different academic specialty, it's a lot easier to evaluate a candidate for promotion by counting papers than by judging thoroughness and creativity.

The difference in style highlights a concern that Didion says is crucial to understanding and fixing the salary gap: unwritten rules and expectations. For an outsider-whether that means a woman; an international, black or Hispanic scientist; or someone from a working class background making their family's first foray into higher education-unwritten rules represent an obstacle course that insiders may not even notice.

Four Key Areas: Face-time, Risk, Recommendations, National Visibility

Didion points out four areas, rife with unspoken expectations, which an aspiring young scientist, male or female, needs to keep in mind:

  • Face-time. Whether it's beers after a long night in the lab, or hoops on Wednesday night, a lot of decisions get made in those casual settings.

  • Recommendations. The language used in these all-important documents is crucial and often unconsciously biased. A woman might have "assisted" with a project, whereas a man "was instrumental" in carrying it out, she says.

  • Risk. Outsiders tend to feel more visible when they make mistakes, yet scientific creativity depends on risk-taking.

  • National Visibility. Without experience in their field or careful mentoring, it's hard for a young scientist to know how to plug into national scientific societies, but these organizations can provide a needed measure of external validation and credibility.

Wage Gaps Start Small, But Accumulated Inequities Mean Deep Divides

Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, views the salary gap in terms of "accumulated inequity," the collection of small, unintentional differences in treatment that can grow into a deep divide.

"Salaries are only one indicator of how people are valued," she says. "There are lots of ways to advantage or disadvantage people." When asked about potential solutions, she cites high-level leadership and institutional transparency.

Institutions can change fast when a clear mandate comes from the top down, says Malcom. Other observers in both industry and academe agree. When Massachusetts Institute of Technology's president Charles Vest became convinced that real inequities existed at MIT, he moved quickly to address both the salary issues and some of the more subtle contributors, such as inequitable distribution of lab space and the assignment of administrative duties.

Malcom talks about transparency in terms of both data and process. Statistics on salary and other indicators have to be collected and examined regularly within institutions, she says, but she also wants to know, "Is it really clear to everybody how decisions are made?"

Making criteria for hiring, tenure, promotion and raises clear would put insiders and outsiders on more equal footing and would promote accountability for results, she says.

Martha Downs is an ecosystems scientist, turned freelance science writer (not for the money). She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

For more information:

Survey results (AAAS members only):

Analysis of Survey (available to all):

Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology:

National Science Foundation: