Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches

Today’s Science Section of the NY Times has an article by Cornelia Dean, Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches:

Since the 1970s, women have surged into science and engineering classes in larger and larger numbers, even at top-tier institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where half the undergraduate science majors and more than a third of the engineering students are women. Half of the nation’s medical students are women, and for decades the numbers have been rising similarly in disciplines like biology and mathematics.

Yet studies show that women in science still routinely receive less research support than their male colleagues, and they have not reached the top academic ranks in numbers anything like their growing presence would suggest.

For example, at top-tier institutions only about 15 percent of full professors in social, behavioral or life sciences are women, “and these are the only fields in science and engineering where the proportion of women reaches into the double digits,” an expert panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences reported in September. And at each step on the academic ladder, more women than men leave science and engineering.

So in government agencies, at scientific organizations and on university campuses, female scientists are asking why, and wondering what they can do about it.

The article later goes on:

“The reality is there are barriers that women face,” said Kathleen S. Matthews, the dean of natural sciences at Rice, who spoke at the meeting’s opening dinner. “There are circles and communities of engagement where women are by and large not included.”

Organizers of these events dismiss the idea voiced in 2005 by Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, that women over all are handicapped as scientists because as a group they are somehow innately deficient in mathematics. The organizers point to ample evidence that any performance gap between men and women is changeable and is shrinking to the vanishing point.

Instead, they talk about what they have to know and do to get ahead. They talk about unspoken, even unconscious sexism that means they must be better than men to be thought as good — that they must, as one Rice participant put it, literally and figuratively wear a suit and heels, while men can relax in jeans.

They muse on the importance of mentoring and other professional support and talk about ways women can provide it for each other if they do not receive it from their professors or advisers.

Soon thereafter follows a crucial observation:

And they obsess about what they call “the two body problem,” the extreme difficulty of reconciling a demanding career in science with marriage and a family — especially, as is more often the case for women than men in science, when the spouse also has scientific ambitions.

This is the heart of the issue: to do scientific research at the highest level is completely consuming, so much so that for a woman to take off a few years to start a family may cause her to fall irretrievably behind.

It’s an issue we must all address. A scientific establishment that does not allow a woman to raise a family is an establishment in distress. Finding workable solutions will be difficult, but at the least recognizing the importance of this issue will start the process of remediation.

And of course there is the constant problem of having to deal with stereotyping:

Evelynn Hammonds, a historian of science who heads a Harvard diversity effort started after Dr. Summers’s remarks, recalled when, as an aspiring engineer, she was advised that her neat handwriting might mean she would be a good secretary. Instead, she earned a degree in electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a master’s in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate at Harvard.

Among other things, she said, universities should be asking whether a career in science demands 70-hour work weeks “at every point in time,” or whether people should be able to step in and out of academia, as family demands change.


Answering the aggressiveness question correctly can be a key to obtaining the financial resources (like laboratory space or stipends for graduate students) and the social capital (like collaboration and sharing) that are essential for success in science, he said. But, he told his mostly female audience, “the band of acceptable behavior for women is narrower than it is for men.”

Women who assert themselves “may be derogated,” he said, and, possibly as a result, women are less likely to recognize negotiating opportunities, and may beapprehensive about negotiating for resources when opportunities arise. That is a problem, he said, because even small differences in resources can “accumulate over a career to lead to significant differences in outcomes.”

For example, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in its report, women who are scientists publish somewhat less over all than their male colleagues — but if surveys control for the amount of support researchers receive, women publish as often as men, the report said.

Another speaker at the Columbia conference, Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University, said clear and explicit evaluation criteria are essential.

Even today, Dr. Heilman said, the idea that women are somehow unsuited to science is widespread and tenacious. Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

And because science is still widely viewed as “a male arena,” she said, a woman who succeeds may be viewed as “selfish, manipulative, bitter, untrustworthy, conniving and cold.”

“Women in science are in a double bind,” Dr. Heilman said. “When not clearly successful, they are presumed to be incompetent. When they are successful, they are not liked.”

Women do better, she said, in environments where they are judged on grants obtained, prizes won, findings cited by other experts, or other explicit criteria, rather than on whether they are, say, “cutting edge.” “There has to be very little room for ambiguity,” Dr. Heilman said. “Otherwise, expectations swoop in to fill the vacuum.”

Some women even acknowledge they have fallen victim to the gender trap:

But there is evidence that women do not receive this support to the degree men do.

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman.

Also, Dr. Steitz said, “For women, the things that were talked about more frequently were how well they were trained, what good teachers they were and how well their applications were put together.” When the subject of the letter was male, she said, the big topics were research skills and success in the lab.

“Ever since I read this paper and I sit down to write a letter of recommendation,” Dr. Steitz said, “I think, ‘Oh, have I fallen into this trap?’ ”

If mentors don’t present themselves, women may have to create them, Dr. Steitz said.

The article does report on progress, as did a recent segment on the Charlie Rose show in which Eric Kandel, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, brought along four women active in the field of brain research. All were quite eloquent and clearly dedicated to research in this the perhaps most challenging area of research today.

The issue to be faced is much more than correcting past wrongs.

For if we don’t make scientific research an enterprise more open to women, then in the future women scientists, and all the rest of of us, will pay the price of discoveries not made, or made later than they could have been.

It’s a price we can ill afford to pay.


One Comment

  1. cabbey
    Posted December 21, 2006 at 05:02 | Permalink | Reply

    “Among other things, she said, universities should be asking whether a career in science demands 70-hour work weeks “at every point in time,” or whether people should be able to step in and out of academia, as family demands change.”

    Hello? Reality calling… that’s a question we should *all* be asking. My wife’s possession of a pair of ovaries shouldn’t somehow entitle her to more time with our family than I, were we in the same job. Just as my lack of them would not reduce my need to nurture and spend time with our children.

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