Women make up 26% of scientists at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), but occupy only 17% of the space, according to an unprecedented report released last week.
The 56 female SIO scientists own an average of half the research space and one-third the storage space of their 157 male counterparts, according to a 95-page report by a task force of SIO faculty and staff and UCSD administrators. 16 labs that were defined as “very large” all belonged to men. Women also have less office space. Of the 32 storage containers desired in the on-site service yards – as opposed to the less suitable remote sites – 31 are reserved for men.
The authors said the differences could not be “explained away” by funding, years in SIO, discipline, or research group size. They concluded, “Our analysis indicates that there are widespread, organization-wide cultural barriers to gender equality within Scripps.”
The report was commissioned in May 2022 by the university’s chancellor, executive vice chancellor, and director of the SIO after SIO faculty members raised their concerns. Its findings are likely to resonate with other institutions. American Geophysical Union President Lisa Grumlich, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, says that at major research universities she has visited across the country, faculty from marginalized groups have told her that they do not have enough space for their research and that space allocation policies lack accountability. She says she was “unfortunately not surprised” by the SIO’s findings.
Perched on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, the 120-year-old research center for ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences appears to be the first scientific institution to have conducted and released such a comprehensive statistical analysis of space allocation by gender. But her findings mirror those of an investigation nearly 30 years ago led by Nancy Hopkins, now a biologist emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the early 1990s, under cover of darkness, Hopkins measured every lab in the biology building there before leading a groundbreaking 1999 report on systemic discrimination against women faculty members at MIT. Hopkins describes the new findings as “astonishing. … I looked at this thing and thought, Oh my God, 30; I’ve been doing this for 30 years. It’s been written about, talked about, and it’s still happening.”
A 1999 MIT report concluded that women there lack space compared to men. But the data behind this discovery has been kept secret. A 2000 review of gender equality by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that women scientists experienced a striking deficit of space compared to their male peers as they both advanced in their careers, but it did not look at potential confounders as the current study did.
When the authors of the new study corrected for variables such as funding, time in SIO, and discipline that might explain stark differences in space allocations, they came up blank. As faculty gained more funding, space allocations for men grew at four times the rate for women. And as their research groups grew in size, the men’s research space expanded at nearly twice the rate of women’s. Gender gaps persisted across research disciplines, meaning that the clustering of men in a field that needed more space — for example, ocean research versus computational studies — could not explain the discrepancies. Nor was the space trajectory researched with the length of time the scientists spent at the enterprise, making it unlikely that men on average would have spent more time explaining some of the space variances.
The task force also highlighted the dramatic differences in perceptions between men and women among the 77 active faculty members who responded to an anonymous survey. When asked if they had enough space for their work, 42% of women answered in the negative, compared to 6% of men. Only 10% of women found space allocations transparent, compared to 28% of men.
One contributor to unbalanced space allocation is a practice called “inheritance,” the authors write. SIO policy requires space to be returned to the institution for reallocation upon the death or retirement of a faculty member, but the policy is often ignored when a departing principal investigator allocates his place to an heir—a practice that disproportionately benefited men, especially those with the largest coefficients.-
Also contributing are honorary faculty, 86% of whom are men, who occupy nearly a quarter of the total space at SIO. said Stefanie Lutz, an environmental hydrologist at Utrecht University who was lead author on a 2019 global survey study on the effects of gender discrimination in Earth and space sciences.
The new report, which UCSD posted on its website, is “extraordinary in how thoroughly it was conducted — but also because [the UCSD administration] Announce it afterwards. “They could have put it in a hole,” says Jane Willenbring, a Stanford geologist who was an SIO associate professor from 2016 to 2020.
“These findings do not reflect the values of our university,” UCSD chancellor Pradeep Khosla wrote in a cover letter. Khosla said he has assigned SIO Director Margaret Lenin, who served in the position for 10 years, to chair a “Change Management” committee that implements many of the corrective recommendations in the report and that will begin reporting to him monthly. Recommendations include identifying and promptly reallocating available and underused space and “addressing space allocations” for retired faculty to better serve those who have not retired.
“[It’s] says Victor Ferreira, a psychologist who is UCSD vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and heads the task force that authored the report. “Everything I have seen including the fact that the public can download this report indicates that the university does not want to whitewash this issue.”
It will take concerted corrective action to convince the skeptics. “Nancy Hopkins did all this work and highlighted how different it is to be a woman in science than to be a man in science. We learned nothing from that,” Willenberg says. “I’ve been assuming since the MIT report that people — maybe above my salary, but somebody was looking for this.”
Other research institutions may soon receive similar wake-up calls. In 2020, with COVID-19 protocols dictating the amount of space required per person in the lab, “suddenly there were flyby spreadsheets… and charts,” says one woman, a junior geologist at a major university who asked not to be identified for fear of professional repercussions. Section “. And I quickly created a color-coded bar graph showing men at all occupational levels ahead of women in lab space per capita. “I just jumped at you with, ‘Holy crap, that’s not good.’” “
“This remains an ongoing problem for everyone at every level,” adds an SIO faculty member who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issues. “This isn’t just Earth Science or Scripps. This is all STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. “