Women, Science and Interdisciplinary Ways of Working

Discussions of how to diversify the research world and of how to work beyond the boundaries of traditional fields should be combined, write Diana Rhoten and Stephanie Pfirman.

October 22, 2007

For at least a decade, universities and federal agencies alike have been engaged in an interdisciplinary arms race, competing to expand interdisciplinary programs and opportunities at ever faster rates in the hopes of achieving that transformational breakthrough in research. At the same time, federal and local programs have been working against the clock, seeking to broaden participation of women and members of minority groups in science, mathematics, and engineering before the U.S. loses its competitive edge.

While research and policy have been concerned with each of these trends often in parallel, surprisingly few efforts have considered them together, to ask whether and how interdisciplinary science might at once not only stimulate discovery across but also attract diversity to the scientific enterprise.

Despite the lack of empirical evidence there seems to be a tacit expectation, if not widespread assumption, on the part of many policy reformers, administrators and researchers that women may have a stronger preference or predisposition for interdisciplinary over disciplinary work as compared to their male colleagues. For example, reform efforts designed to recruit and retain women to science courses and careers often direct universities to: rely more on integrative methods, provide cooperative learning and working environments, use less competitive models of teaching and more flexible models of tenure, frame science in its social context, present practical applications along with theoretical motivations from the outset, and undertake problems with a "holistic" or "global" scope.

Moreover, as researchers interested in interdisciplinarity as an object of study, we have both been asked repeatedly about gender as predictor of participation in or success with interdisciplinary practices. We have also been confronted by scientists telling us that we should not encourage junior women to conduct interdisciplinary research because "women have a hard enough time as it is, you need to keep them focused on rigorous science or they’ll never be taken seriously." After a growing store of anecdotal data to the point, we started to ask ourselves why we weren’t looking at gender and began listening to our peers and readers.

Given we could find only two empirical analyses explicitly tackling the question of gender and interdisciplinarity, we began by recoding our data to see if we had any evidence to support these broader expectations and then proceeded with reviewing different schools of thought to see what theories might best explain the observations.

Of course, over-generalizing and over-essentializing differences between women and men is a common pitfall, and one we do not wish to stumble into here by arguing for simple generic categories. Using gender as a lens, the purpose is to develop an awareness of how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and socio-structural factors may contribute to decisions about interdisciplinary research and how such actions might then affect individual careers and institutional strategies. In fact, though we focus here on women in academic research, we believe that the arguments we propose may, in some cases, also resonate with men as well as with scholars in minority groups.

Admittedly, our approach is exploratory, and our data are sparse. But, even with these limitations, we see this as an important first step toward understanding the preferences women might have for interdisciplinarity and why. We also see this as a critical point in the policy process to identify what consequences -- both intended and unintended -- might come from twinning the goals of expanding interdisciplinary science with those of increasing scientific diversity, and what they could pose for the individuals, their institutions, and the larger enterprise. Our hope is to catalyze research science practice and policy discussions about the subject of diversity and interdisciplinarity; thus, we intentionally set out to raise more questions than we answer. We want to examine the proposition, not start with an assumption.

We found only one large-scale empirical study concerned with the connection between gender and interdisciplinarity. In 1998, Evaluation Associates Ltd, a consulting firm, conducted an assessment of interdisciplinary research in higher education institutions in Britatin. The analysis of responses from 5,505 researchers in British higher education institutions indicates that greater percentages of women than men report participating in interdisciplinary research at almost every age and discipline. The differences in rates of participation for junior faculty are particularly significant as British women report spending approximately half of their time on interdisciplinary research and men spend only a third.

Another study, published in Gender and Society by Erin Leahey in 2006, used a sample of 196 sociology and 222 linguistics faculty members to examine a related issue of specialization. She found with statistical significance that those who specialize tend to produce more publications, and that women tend to specialize less than men. While researchers could theoretically specialize in an interdisciplinary area or interdiscipline, Alan Porter and colleagues found in their 2007 paper that interdisciplinary researchers also tend to be less specialized: single interdiscipline specialists are rare.

In order to examine what might be behind these differences, we broke down the concept of interdisciplinarity into four modes of practice. For each, we briefly consider theoretical arguments and empirical data related to gender-based participation in these different interdisciplinary ways of working. We start with a model of individual interdisciplinarity, and proceed through three different collaborative models which involve in step other individual researchers, other intellectual fields, and other institutional communities.

The first category of interdisciplinarity occurs when individuals make cognitive connections among disciplines, and thus "cross-fertilize." Researchers who use this approach single-handedly knit together ideas, approaches and information from different fields and/or disciplines. In the UK study, women clearly pursue independent lines of interdisciplinary inquiry more readily than men: women who operate as lone scientists (as opposed to working in formal or ad hoc teams) reported spending 44 percent of their time on interdisciplinary research, while male lone scientists only reported spending 33 percent. Although these data do not indicate definitively why women would have a greater tendency to cross-fertilize, other research suggests possible avenues of explanation. Cross-fertilization requires the processing of the languages and epistemologies of other fields as well as establishing connections among them. Recent studies in cognitive psychology have shown that whereas males tend to look for abstract and theoretical arguments, dissociating it from any distracting information, females are more apt to make connections between language, ideas and the larger context.

The second category of interdisciplinary work -- "team-collaboration" -- occurs by virtue of several individuals working together. Here researchers collaborate in formal or informal teams or networks that span across fields and/or disciplines. Evaluation Associates found that most interdisciplinary research occurred in ad hoc teams (53 percent), with lower levels conducted by formal teams (29 percent) and by lone researchers (18 percent). Beyond some preliminary findings from research by one of us (Rhoten) that suggest that females -- particularly younger females -- may have on average slightly more interdisciplinary collaborators than men, we have not found any other empirical data relating to the role of gender in the composition of interdisciplinary research teams. Potential lines of reasoning for why women might be expected to have a proclivity for teamwork come from the psychology of gender literature, which portrays females as being more inclined toward group work and males more likely to prefer independent work.

The third category -- "field creation" -- involves the bridging of existing research domains to form new disciplines, subdisciplines or “interdisciplines” at their intersections. Early data from a study by Rhoten and other colleagues of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs indicate that enrollment rates of female students in new interdisciplines tend to be higher than the enrollment rates of female students in cognate disciplines. For example, in 2003, female students represented 45 percent of the total graduate enrollment across all earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; 55 percent across biological sciences; and, 22 percent across engineering. By comparison, the ratio of female students averages 57 percent and climbs as high as 80 percent for this sample of IGERT programs concentrating on emerging interdisciplines in the area of environmental systems (e.g., those focused on the intersection of earth systems, ecosystem management, and environmental science and engineering). Later stage career data from the University of California at Berkeley also suggest that a great proportion of female versus male faculty may be bridging fields to build new areas of research: 26 percent of female faculty in STEM fields as opposed to 15 percent of males hold joint appointments, according to the National Research Council. Some scholars of gender and science studies proffer that female scientists may be attracted to new fields because they are less established in their status, hierarchical and competitive structure than older disciplines, allowing for greater flexibility and opportunity for intellectual exploration and knowledge revaluation.

The fourth category -- "problem orientation" -- entails interdisciplinary research that is oriented toward problem solving, especially "real world" questions that confront society. Researchers with an interdisciplinary problem-orientation engage in topics that not only draw on multiple fields but also serve multiple stakeholders and broader missions outside of academe. Literature from both psychology as well as women studies documents consistent differences in the concerns that appeal to males versus females, with the former generally tending to be more interested in things and theories one might associate with basic science and the latter in people and problems often aligned with applied research. Currently, beyond personal narratives, there is no real systematic evidence to test the relationship of gender to this category of interdisciplinarity. At best, we can glean from the aforementioned sample of IGERTs that only those programs self-classified as "problem-oriented" (versus "tool-oriented" or "vision-oriented") are majority female enrolled. Likewise, and again at a later career stage, we know that the joint appointments that STEM women hold at Berkeley tend to be in "business, biology, law, city and regional planning, economics, and environmental science" -- mostly fields that connect directly with society.

While more research is needed to reject or support the hypothesis, these preliminary observations and summary explanations point to the possibility that women might have a predilection for interdisciplinarity in each of these four categories of activity and for different reasons. However, even if the proposition were right and interdisciplinary research presents a promising angle by which to engage women and diversify the scientific enterprise, can it or will it be a rewarding career trajectory for women and other underrepresented minorities to follow in the current academic environment? Can and will interdisciplinary work lead those who choose it to find and retain productive and innovative positions? We are concerned by findings such as those reported by Leahey about the lower productivity of non-specialists, and by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where faculty who described their research as "non-mainstream" responded more negatively to all questions about the quality of their workplace than their colleagues doing "mainstream" research.

On the one hand, National Academies reports like "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research to scientific development and national competitiveness. On the other hand, reports such as "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research," also coming out of the National Academies, identify "promotion criteria" as the top impediment to the future of interdisciplinarity research, pointing first and foremost to the problem that the potentially unique contributions of a researcher’s interdisciplinary work may not be sufficient enough to compensate for what is likely to be his/her lower output of disciplinary research. Good interdisciplinary work requires not only depth but also breadth of knowledge across different disciplines, the pursuit of which inevitably takes time away from the (re)production of the type of narrowly focused research in subdisciplines favored by the contemporary tenure system.

We recognize that tenure prospects can be uncertain for all young professors. Yet, we also believe that, far from fully restructuring the system, there are additional steps around scientific risk, review and reward that can be (and in a few cases, have been) taken so as to move beyond interdisciplinary revolution into interdisciplinary reform, and thereby not just attract but actually retain women in the interdisciplinary programs for which they seem to demonstrate preference and our institutions report to be invested. As an example of progress in this area, one might look to the Guidance for Interdisciplinary Hiring and Career Development recently released by the Council for Environmental Deans and Directors. Despite the hype and hope for interdisciplinary research, it cannot be considered ethical or even practical to draw women into science using interdisciplinary research as the lure, if simultaneously systems of work, evaluation and promotion are not reformed to reward them for taking up the challenge.


Diana Rhoten is founder and director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Science Research Council. Her current research interests include the social and technical conditions as well as the individual and organizational implications of different approaches to knowledge production and dissemination. Rhoten is principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-sponsored study of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training programs.

Stephanie Pfirman is Alena Wels Hirschorn '58 and Martin Hirschorn Professor in Environmental and Applied Sciences Professor and chair of environmental science at Barnard College, and co-principal investigator of the NSF-sponsored Advancing Women in the Sciences initiative of the Columbia Earth Institute.

Rhoten and Pfirman are co-chairs of a workshop at Columbia next month on "Women, Minorities, and Interdisciplinarity: Transforming the Research Enterprise."


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