To the Editor

After putting my children to bed and submitting my proposal to the Swedish Research Council (VR) last night, I read an interesting article in Nature Geoscience1, reporting that the fraction of women obtaining tenure-track positions after earning a PhD in physical oceanography has decreased from 23% to 8% between the periods 1980–1995 and 1996–2009. This finding deserves attention. However, I found the discussion of the reasons for this drop unsatisfying.

Two explanations were proposed: a change in women's family situation, or less affirmative action from the institutions. Yet women and men with children can be as productive scientifically (measured in number of papers per year) as their colleagues without children, or even more productive2,3,4. Hence, “marrying and having children” is not necessarily the primary cause for fewer women in higher positions in academia.

In countries in northern Europe where affordable day care for children aged one year and older has been in place for more than 30 years, together with provisions for parents to share paid parental leave, there is still a lack of women in higher positions in science.

We have all participated in conferences where a large part of the audience was female, yet most keynote speakers were men. I suggest that visibility and exposure at conferences and elsewhere matter to women's career progress at least as much as having a family. If relatively fewer women than men are invited to give keynote talks at international meetings, asked to join invitee-only workshops, selected to become principal investigators for large, strategic research proposals and invited to write comments in high-profile journals, the effect on women's career chances will be noticeable.

Placing the responsibility with women who choose to have a family is too easy. Instead, if we are to combat gender inequality, women need to focus not only on performing high-quality, interesting science but also on ensuring that they are given equal access to high-profile networks. Only then will they have the same opportunities as their male colleagues to succeed in science.