Academic science has been in a bit of a cultural schism; groups like the National Science Foundation and universities have spent billions of dollars promoting the idea that academic science is the only real science - discovery - which has led to a glut of PhDs who want to stay at universities.But when it comes to diversity and fairness, the corporate world is way ahead.

So academic science is better than the corporate kind, except when it's worse. Some discrimination is too obvious to be ignored - handicapped people and Republicans have normal representation at undergraduate levels but they can't get tenured jobs. Others are simply a difference in perception; everyone notices if physics is only 40 percent women but no one is concerned if the social sciences are only 30 percent men. 

But academic science is being harmed by its own public relations. Despite promoting the perception that it is non-corporate and therefore ethically superior, academic science is actually a lot like a small business of 4-5 employees. In a large corporation, maternity leave is not a problem but in a 4-person company, that is a drop in productivity of 25%. Female doctors juggle family and work just fine, they don't feel like they have to leave medicine when they have kids, and so there have been calls to adopt a little more of the private sector approach to both diversity and family practices in academic science.

What is odd is that the most drop-out in academia is not happening computer science or physics, like is claimed, it is happening in female-dominated fields like biology and psychology.

A new paper by psychologists and economists finds that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is a level playing field for women in academia, especially in the hard sciences. This has been found in the past also - yes, women are less represented at the highest levels of some fields but that is because academics get tenure and in the past there were more men. When women apply, studies have found they are actually hired in an over-representative fashion, they are not penalized.

Stephen J. Ceci , Wendy M. Williams, Donna K. Ginther and Shulamit Kahn focused on data collected since 2000 from various scientific disciplines in order to provide an up-to-date look at women in science. Their findings paint a complex portrait:

"No single cause or single sweeping statement accurately captures why women are found in short supply in some fields," says Ceci. "Rather, the causes are complex and involve multiple factors that operate at different stages of the life course."

As is known, women are underrepresented in some college majors, graduate school programs, and professional fields that are the most mathematically-intensive, such as earth science, engineering and the physical sciences. In 2011, for example, women received only 25% of those bachelor's degrees - but when it comes to tenure-track assistant professorships, women are up to 44%.

The authors blame K-12 education rather than sexism in science academia. Though teachers are 70 percent women, they believe schools promote attitudes and expectations about math careers and ability, leading girls to be less likely to major in math-intensive subjects in college and more likely to major in non-math-intensive areas, such as biology and the social sciences. 

For those women who do receive a PhD in a hard science, the playing field is level. Women are equally (or more) likely as men to be invited to interview for a tenure-track job or be offered such a job. Women and men receive comparable salaries and show comparable promotion rates, and they have similar journal acceptance rates and grant funding rates. They also show similar levels of persistence and hours worked, and they express similar levels of career satisfaction.

"The data show that the biases and barriers that resulted in attrition of women from academic science in the past have largely been surmounted and the causes of modern underrepresentation have changed. By focusing on historical biases we risk misdirecting resources away from the current causes of women's underrepresentation," says Ceci.

Paradoxically, the data suggest that women are actually more likely to leave scientific fields in which they are already well-represented — such as life sciences, psychology, and social sciences (LPS). Women in math-intensive fields — the very fields in which they are most underrepresented — segue from undergraduate to graduate school to tenure-track professorships at rates comparable to men. In contrast, it is in those fields in which women are well-represented that they tend more to drop out of the pipeline.

According to Halpern, one of the most important features of the report is that it separates math-intensive fields, in which women are underrepresented, from non-math-intensive fields, in which women are overrepresented or at parity.

"This distinction should change the nature of future research," says Halpern. "We can no longer talk about gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields) as though they are homogeneous across disciplines."

Thus, increasing women's representation in academic science not only requires a shift in emphasis toward math-intensive fields in particular, but also a shift away from alleged bias in the academy toward interventions that are targeted at earlier time points in the lives of girls and women.

"Our hope is that this research synthesis, coupled with the numerous new analyses we have provided in this article, will help to redirect the debate toward critical issues that are most important in limiting the careers of women scientists today, and hopefully move closer to solving them," Ceci, Williams, Ginther, and Kahn write.

Published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.