FEATURE Women in Science part four

Molly Carnes picked an odd time to shut down her laboratory. After years of medical training, grant writing, and bench work, she had achieved tenure. But she quickly discovered that she was the only woman with that distinction in her department, which happened to be the largest department – medicine -- at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the first time, Carnes says, she felt what it was like to be part of a stigmatized, marginalized group.

So she did what any good scientist would do, she set out to understand why -- why it was that more women weren’t advancing in science. Armed with a mid-career leadership grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Carnes went back to school, earning a master’s degree in epidemiology so she could study the problem from a disease perspective.

“I wanted to know what could possibly be “killing off” these women students before they ever got to be full professors,” said Carnes, who went on to co-found the Women In Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) at her university. “There is no disease in Western society that has the mortality rate that we see in these poor women scientists.”

The Ugly Truth

Women may enter the sciences at near equal numbers to men, but they are lagging far behind when it comes to coveted tenure-track positions in academia. According to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), women are twenty-four percent less likely than men to become a full professor. That translates to only around a quarter of tenured and tenure-track positions in science and engineering disciplines being held by women. So what is keeping women from succeeding in science?

“I think it is actually clear what the problem is, and I think we pussyfoot around it with all of these alternative explanations that have to do with our biology or desire to raise a family, things that none of us can fix,” said Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale who has sat on a number of national committees on the status of women in science. “The real truth is these fields are elitist and hierarchal and competitive in ways that are off-putting to women. And  that women’s abilities are underestimated and undervalued.”

Urry references a wealth of experimental literature from a number of fields --  industrial organization, psychology, management studies – in support of her argument. One such study examined the peer review system of one of the major funding agencies for biomedical research in Sweden, a nation where women are awarded 44 percent of doctoral PhDs but go on to occupy only seven percent of professorial positions. In their analysis, researchers Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold found that a female postdoctoral applicant had to publish at least three more papers in a top science journal, or twenty in lesser-known journals, to be judged as productive as a male applicant.

The measures of success that underlie the current “meritocratic” system in academia are often arbitrary and applied in a biased manner, states Beyond Bias and Barriers, a 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences. Men and women alike tend to overestimate male achievements and underestimate female performance. But many in the hard sciences are still quick to discount research that calls into question their own objectivity.

“As scientists, it is our job to observe the natural world and draw deductions,” said Urry, who reviewed the report. “We believe our ability to come to objective conclusions from the data is the most important thing of all. So if I go tell my colleagues that they are biased, they freak out because if they are biased they are not good scientists.”

As a well-respected molecular biologist and senior faculty member at MIT, Nancy Hopkins was among the first scientists to recognize there was a problem. But even she admits that it took almost two decades for her to realize that it extended beyond the biases affecting her own life and actually was affecting virtually every other woman in the field.

“If you are undervalued every time you present, every time you speak, every time you express a thought, every time you publish a paper, think of the impact of that,” said Hopkins. “I started out believing the only barrier for women would be having to compete with people who work 70 to 80 hours a week when you are also the primary care giver of your children. So I thought if I made the choice not to have children, there wouldn’t be any barriers, but that is not true.”

Hopkins chaired the First Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, which is credited with sparking a national discussion on gender equity. She says that when she later became co-chair of the Council of Faculty Diversity and a member of the Academic Council, she was the first woman at MIT to ever see tenure, promotion and salary data. Now the current president is a woman, and those numbers are reviewed every year by equity committees at all five schools at the university.

“Just getting the data and understanding the problem is an important first step,” said Hopkins. “I don’t think there is any bad will intended, I think it is just invisible. That’s why it takes so long to create real solutions. You need people who have experienced these things to tell you what the problem is, and then you need someone to come up with the solution, and then you need to implement it.”

First Steps

Recognizing that self-awareness of such biases is half the battle, Mary Wyer has been working to incorporate gender literacy into the curriculum at North Carolina State University. Wyer, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, says that men and women could stand to benefit from thinking in more nuanced ways about how they interact in research environments.

“The logic is that if we want the next generation of scientists to behave differently, we have to teach them different stuff,” said Wyer, who co-edited a book called Women, Science and Technology. “The traditional science and engineering curriculum, in its starkest terms, cultivates the ignorance of scientists and engineers about the social processes that are a part of everyday life. Social attitudes and values are inescapable. The fact that they are sometimes invisible or unspoken to the people who are engaging in them can be problematic because if you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.”

A report released in April of this year by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that it is such unseen problems -- stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments – that continue to hold women back. The report, titled Why So Few?, stated that college departments that work to integrate women faculty and enhance a sense of community are also more likely to recruit and retain female talent.

“Women can improve their situation, but only by institutional changes can women as a group move forward,” said Virginia Valian, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Hunter College and a member of the research advisory committee on the AAUW project. “Women don't negotiate as much as men, but one reason is that they are responded to more negatively than men when they do negotiate. Similarly, women tend not to be as aggressive as men, but they are responded to very negatively when they are aggressive. Only by changing what we reward can women get ahead. It's tempting to suggest fixing the woman, but we need to look at the harder job of fixing the institutions.”

Valian, who also co-directs Hunter's Gender Equity Project, says that if people first recognize that they are all biased to some extent, they can then put into place policies and procedures that will buffer the most negative effects of those biases. On an individual level, it can be as simple as doing a conscious double-check -- like adding a list of numbers bottom-up and top-down to make sure we haven't made an error. Things like giving credibility to a new technician or committee member, verifying that a roster of colloquia speakers represents all of the available talent, or making sure that letters of recommendation do not disadvantage females, can all help.

But changing the system – not just the individual -- takes even more manpower and substantive funding. In 2001, the NSF started offering very large grants for what they called “institutional transformation.” The ADVANCE (Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers) Institutional Transformation awards went to major academic institutions that were willing to make sustainable changes to their culture. Now there are about 40 institutions with such large institutional transformation grants and even more with smaller ones. Many of these programs have been successful, and they are just beginning to be evaluated.

With the support of one multi-million dollar award, Carnes founded WISELI to address gender equity for women scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Institute offers a number of workshops to increase the diversity and improve the academic climate, including one that trains members of search committees on how to bring in the most diverse pool of candidates.

“Because there was no other training, the workhop was filling an institutional need to train researchers serving on hiring committees,” said Carnes.  “So within the context of that training -- which includes very task-oriented stuff like how to run a meeting and what an open record was -- we also included a session on how unconscious biases against various social groups could play out to undermine your explicit egalitarian goals in hiring.”

A number of measures indicate that their workshops are working. Departments where at least one member participated in at least one hiring workshop went on to hire more women than departments that had not participated. The faculty hired into those participating departments reported being significantly more satisfied with the hiring process. And the participants seemed to appreciate that evidence-based approach of the workshops that relied more on number-crunching than finger-pointing.

But not all programs focused on institutional transformation entail data-driven workshops or PowerPoint presentations. Theater is an unlikely tool being used at the University of Michigan to drive discussions around the themes of gender and power. Jeffrey Steiger, who directs the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Players at UM, says the benefit of using theater is it can engage people on a different level, drawing them in emotionally to a story or its characters.

The self-described theatrical anthropologist has written a number of sketches – with input from the faculty –portraying scenarios of academic life, from faculty advising, to tenure and promotion, to a search committee. Following each sketch, the audience interacts with the characters, who are played by both professionally trained actors and graduate students or faculty in various disciplines.

“People often walk in skeptical, and personally I don’t blame them,” said Steiger. “But it can actually be helpful when some people don’t relate to the sketch and some people do, because that is when the dialogue can really begin. If they are all from the same department and discover that they have had completely different experiences, they can start talking about the implications of that. And sometimes the aha! moment doesn’t come until months after the sketch, when participants finds themselves observing the exact same biased behavior in a meeting that they had seen portrayed on stage.”

Toward Equal Footing?

Though Ana Mari Cauce, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Washington, tries to remain alert to potentially biased behaviors, she hasn’t spent a lot of time worrying about whether she personally has been at a disadvantage. She does, however, admit that certain biases may affect the way people view her. “I am Latina, I am lesbian, and I am a woman, so in some ways I feel like those three sets of prejudices kind of cancel each other out, because folks have no idea what to expect,” said Cauce.

Cauce is in charge of UW’s Center for Institutional Change, which runs a number of workshops and programs aimed at creating a good academic environment for women. She says that the faculty were skeptical of their work at first, but quickly realized that being seen as a friendly place for women scientists gave their institution a competitive advantage.

“I am a psychologist, so I am apt to say that faculty members are good rats -- they tap the lever that delivers the pellets,” said Cauce. “And I really think that as administrators we have at least some – not total – but some control over the reward structure, and I think the way that you change the culture and change the behavior is by rewarding people who promote gender equity.”

Women’s representation at UW is among the best in the country, and it continues to increase. Between 2001 and 2007, the university saw a 28 percent increase in the number of tenured or tenure track faculty and an 18 percent increase in women full professors in their ADVANCE departments. Cauce prefers to measure success one scientist at a time, and is particularly proud of how she lured a new mother of twins, a computer scientist named Yoky Matsuoka, to UW by helping her think through day care issues. Since joining the university, Matsuoka has had another child and been named a MacArthur fellow.

Equity, in and of itself, may not be a particularly strong motivating factor. But when equitable behaviors result in more talent staying in the field, which in turn result in more discoveries being made, it can be self-reinforcing. So when will we know that true gender equity has been reached, if it is even attainable?

“I think it important to recognize that being on equal footing doesn’t necessarily mean 50-50,” said Cauce. “There are always going to be gender differences, people are going to be attracted to different things and there will be some gender component to it. I also have no doubt that we will get to the point that there will be a good critical mass of women across probably every scientific discipline. But I am not sure that there is some magical 50-50 that once we reach it we will know everything is fine.”

By Marla Vacek Broadfoot

Part one- July 2009  
Part two - October 2009
Part three - February 2010