Women make up 26% of the scientists at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), but only 17% of the space, according to an unprecedented report published last week.
SIO’s 56 female scientists have on average half the research space and one-third the storage space of their 157 male counterparts, according to the 95-page report produced by a task force of SIO faculty and staff and UCSD officials. The 16 laboratories defined as “very large” all belong to men. Women also have less office space. And of 32 coveted storage bins in on-site service yards, as opposed to less convenient remote locations, 31 are assigned to men.
The authors said the differences could not be “explained” by funding, years in SIO, discipline, or the size of the research group. “Our analysis points to the existence of pervasive institution-wide cultural barriers to gender equity within Scripps,” they concluded.
The report was commissioned in May 2022 by the university’s chancellor, executive vice chancellor and director of SIO after SIO faculty raised concerns. Its findings are likely to resonate with other institutions. American Geophysical Union president Lisa Graumlich, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, says that at major research universities she has visited across the country, she has been told by professors from marginalized groups that they don’t have enough space for her research and that space allocation policies lack accountability. She is “sadly not surprised” by the findings at SIO, she says.
The historic 120-year-old research center for ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, located on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean, appears to be the first scientific institution to have conducted and published such a comprehensive statistical analysis of space allocation by gender. But their findings echo those of research from 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 before leading a groundbreaking 1999 report on systematic discrimination against women faculty at MIT. Hopkins calls the new results “impressive. … I looked at this thing and thought, ‘My God, 30 years old; I was doing this 30 years ago. It’s been written and talked about and it’s still happening.”
The 1999 MIT report concluded that women lacked space relative to men. But the data behind that finding was kept confidential. A 2000 gender equity review by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that women scientists experienced a striking deficit in space compared to their male peers as they both progressed in their careers, but did not examine potential confounding factors such as the current study did.
When the authors of the new study corrected for variables like funding, time in SIO, and discipline that might explain the stark differences in space allocations, they came up empty. As the college got more funding, space allocations for men grew four times that of women. And as the size of their research groups grew, the research space for men expanded to almost double that of women. Gender gaps persisted across all research disciplines, meaning that the grouping of men in a field that needs more space, for example ocean research versus computational studies, could not explain the discrepancies. Research space also did not keep track of how long a scientist had been at the institution, so it was unlikely that a fraction of the spatial differences could be explained by men on average having been at SIO longer.
The task force also illuminated dramatic differences in perceptions between men and women among 77 active teachers who responded to an anonymous survey. When asked if they had enough space for their work, 42% of women said no, compared to 6% of men. Only 10% of women found space allocations to be transparent versus 28% of men.
One contributor to imbalanced space allocations is a practice called “inheritance,” the authors write. SIO policy requires that space be returned to the institution for reallocation when a faculty member dies or retires, but the policy is often ignored when a departing Principal Investigator simply assigns their space to an heir, a practice that has disproportionately benefited men, especially those with the largest labs.
Also contributing are emeritus professors, 86% of them men, who occupy nearly a quarter of all space on SIO. Their high-capacity assignments are “difficult to fathom,” says Stefanie Lutz, an environmental hydrologist at Utrecht University and lead author of a 2019 global survey on the impacts of gender discrimination in earth and space sciences.
The new report, which UCSD posted on its website, “is exceptional because of the thoroughness with which it was produced, but also because [the UCSD administration] publicized it later. They could have put it in a hole,” says Jane Willenbring, a geologist at Stanford University who was an associate professor at SIO from 2016 to 2020.
UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla wrote in a cover letter: “These findings do not reflect the values of our university.” Khosla said he had directed SIO director Margaret Leinen, who has been in the role 10 years, to chair a “Change Management” committee to implement the report’s many corrective recommendations that he will begin reporting to him on a monthly basis. Recommendations include immediately identifying and reallocating available and underutilized space and “addressing space allocations” for retired faculty to better serve those who are not retired.
“[It’s] it’s going to fix it,” says Víctor Ferreira, a psychologist who is the associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion at UCSD faculty and led the task force that wrote the report. “Everything I’ve seen, including the fact that the public can download this report, suggests that the university does not want to cover up this issue.”
Concerted corrective measures will be needed to convince the skeptics. “Nancy Hopkins did all this work and shed light on how different being a woman in science can be than being a man in science. And we haven’t learned anything from that,” says Willenbring. “From the MIT report, I assumed people probably above my salary level, but someone was watching this.”
Other research institutions may receive similar wake-up calls soon. One woman, a junior geoscientist at a major university who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions on her career, says that in 2020, with COVID-19 protocols dictating the precise amount of space required per person in the lab, “of suddenly there were spreadsheets flying around… and floor plans of the department. Soon it generated a color-coded bar graph showing men at every professional level ahead of women in lab space per capita. “I just jumped in plain sight like, ‘Shit, this is not good.’”
“This continues to be an ongoing problem for everyone at all levels,” adds a SIO faculty member who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issues. “This is not just geoscience or Scripps. This is all about STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”