Note: In many academic disciplines the numbers of women may be finally reaching those of men, but the ranks in science and engineering are still a long way from displaying gender equity. This disparity has implications not only in terms of social justice, but also for the quality of science pursued in this country. This article is the first in a series examining some of the unique challenges faced by women in science, such as lack of mentoring, the biological clock and unconscious institutional bias, and will explore possible solutions to retain more talent in this important field.
Amy Wagers knows that she is a rarity. It’s not because she is a scientific stand-out, though she received a Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (most recently she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist). Rather, she feels different because she is one of only two women among the 15 faculty in her department at Harvard. Dr. Wagers readily admits that she has few female peers or mentors, but says she doesn’t think that as a woman she has been held to a tougher standard than her male colleagues. “I don’t know the real reason” said Dr. Wagers, an assistant professor in stem cell and regenerative biology. “It is what it is, and hopefully over time that disparity will go away.”
Clearly, women have come a long way from the days when they were not considered fit to do science or were discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees in the discipline. While they may have earned their place at the laboratory bench, female scientists remain greatly underrepresented in the highest ranks of academia. For instance, a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) survey found that only a little more than a fourth of the deans in colleges and universities are women. Some researchers – men and women alike – believe that equality is simply a matter of time, arguing that the increasing numbers of females going into the pipeline will push more and more of them down the line. But thus far, that theory has not held true, says Diane Halpern, a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College and chair of a Department of Education taskforce on encouraging more women to go into science and mathematics.
Dr. Halpern says plenty of women and girls are stepping onto the ladder leading to an academic career in science. Females have made up the majority of students enrolled in college for the last 25 years. But obstacles – such as family obligations and subtle yet damaging gender biases – do remain to their ascent to higher positions in academia, causing many women to stumble along the way. In the biological sciences, the NSF shows that women are earning 56 percent of the Ph.D.'s, and a slightly smaller percentage of postdoctoral fellowships. But then the numbers drop off further, as females hold just 19 percent of tenured full professorships in science, engineering, and technology.
Pretty Good, for a Girl
Because the factors underlying this inequity can be subtle, it wasn’t until Nancy Hopkins, now a prominent biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had worked for 25 years in what she described as a “man’s profession” before she believed her situation to be unjust. Hopkins then became an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, eventually conducting a controversial study on gender inequality at MIT that found widespread bias against female professors in everything from salaries and promotions to office space and interactions. When Hopkins looks back on her early years in research, she doesn’t recall feeling discriminated against at the time. However, she does remember a particular incident that occurred while training at Harvard under James Watson, a mentor who had fervently pushed her to stay in science. One of the researchers that Watson had invited to campus stopped by the laboratory before giving his talk. He walked up behind Hopkins, inappropriately touched her, and nonchalantly asked what she was working on – catching her completely off guard.
“I just thought it was very embarrassing – I tried to get out of the situation as best I could and use the fact that he was interested in me as an opportunity to talk to him about science,” Dr. Hopkins said. “You didn’t think about it as sexual harassment, it certainly wasn’t illegal because the term didn’t exist and we just didn’t know what it was. Nor did you understand that when a man treats you that way he is probably not going to treat you as an equal scientist.”
While overt discrimination in the United States is illegal, if not obsolete, women’s abilities do continue to be underestimated and undervalued. In her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, Virginia Valian explains that expectations of men and women in our society are different, and those expectations – “gender schemas” – skew our perceptions, even among the very scientists whose livelihood is based on their objectivity. Because of the influence of these gender schemas, the abilities and contributions of men tend to be overrated whereas those of women go underrated. A large body of research exists suggesting that each disadvantage – not getting credit for an idea, not being invited to a scientific meeting – can add up over time, so that men reach the top faster and in greater numbers than women do. As Dr. Valian later writes, “Well-meaning observers may tell the woman not to make a mountain out of a molehill. What they do not understand is that the notion of the accumulation of advantage encapsulates. Mountains are molehills, piled one on top of the other.”
Researchers have spent decades on the topic of women in science, exploring every possible explanation for why females may not choose to go into science, or do not stay there, or are not able to achieve at the highest levels once in the career. Are girls wired differently, so that verbal skills come more naturally than mathematics? Are they socialized to go into more nurturing professions? Does the burden of child-rearing get in the way of their achievement? Or is the culture of the workplace toxic to women? But one question that has not received as much attention as the rest is why it matters that there are not as many women as men in the scientific profession.
Not Just Numbers
“It is a pure and simple question of equity,” says Phoebe Leboy, president of the Association for Women in Science. “It is not fair to set up any barrier to women that you don’t set up to men.” No matter what the true cause for the dearth of women in science may be – and most researchers cite a number of factors – the end result is that women deserve an equal opportunity to make a living from science. Dr. Leboy, who is also a professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, has found in her personal research that the proportion of women going on to apply for biomedical faculty school positions in medical departments is about half of what the Ph.D. levels would predict. She says that many women report leaving science because of an environment that is too difficult, too competitive, and too stressful. As part of the Committee of the Status of Women in Physics, Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale, has participated in several site visits to physics departments across the country in order to assess the climate for women. Dr. Urry says that many women report being substantially unhappier than men in similar academic posts. “The disparity between what some of these women had actually accomplished and their own assessment of whether they should do research is a real mismatch that is just drummed into them,” says Dr. Urry.
But for many researchers, having equal numbers of women and men in the scientific ranks is less of a priority than having a system that is fair and furthers science itself. “I frankly don’t care how many women do science,” says Dr. Hopkins. “I just care that the ones who want to do it can do it without worrying about this problem.” Yet other researchers are concerned that by losing women in science, they are systematically losing half of the talented people in an area that is in constant need of fresh ideas. Beyond Bias and Barriers, a 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences exploring the status of women in science, stated that the United States will have to aggressively pursue the innovative capacity of all of its people – women and men – in order to maintain its scientific and engineering leadership amid increasing economic and educational globalization.
The real issue becomes one of excellence, says Yale’s Dr. Urry, who has advocated for increasing the number of women in the physical sciences. “Most people think to get women and minorities you have to lower standards, and that just drives me batty,” Dr. Urry says. “First of all I start from the assumption that men and women are equally good at doing science. If that isn’t true, then prove it to me, but there’s no evidence that that isn’t true. So by hiring more men than women, you are going deeper into the pool of talent than if you were equally open to hiring both sexes. That means you have less talented faculty than you could have had otherwise.”
Furthering the Field
When diversity is lost in any discipline – whether in terms of racial diversity, ethnic diversity, or gender diversity – a certain amount of intellectual content is lost as well, says Dr. Leboy. She and other researchers like Harvard’s Dr. Wagers agree that it is an undeniable waste of resources to have invested so much time and money in educating talented women who then opt out of research. “In effect you are training a huge amount of people who have creative, important thoughts who are never going to continue to contribute to scientific discovery,” Dr. Wagers says. “That then limits the pool of creative thought that goes into science.”
Generally speaking, women do tend to gravitate toward certain areas of science. According to recent statistics from the NSF, women make up two-thirds of psychologists, less than half of biological and life scientists, a quarter of mathematical and computer scientists, and just one-tenth of engineers. “Certainly there are women who do sewage engineering, but they are much more likely to go into other fields of science,” says Claremont McKenna’s Dr. Halpern. “It is not a matter of one field being better than another, but rather it is important that we are covering diversity in the kinds of questions that people ask about science.” And it is not only the questions that women ask, but the way that they ask them that may make female researchers a particular asset to the scientific process. Women may have a different style of interaction than men, one that could foster the collaboration and cooperation needed for the success of today’s large-scale research endeavors.
“I don’t think that this is intrinsic, but I do think that we as women have been socialized this way, so why not take advantage of it?” says Dr. Urry. “It is imperative that if we are going to continue to make breakthroughs, we have to figure out how to make our profession diverse. Otherwise we are just cloning ourselves and we are going to die out very soon.”
But while such characteristics may be true at a population level, Dr. Wagers is afraid that applying them on an individual level could feed a dangerous stereotype that there is a fundamental difference between male and female scientists. Just the same, turning a blind eye to such differences could do more harm than good. Rather, the answer may be to recognize and embrace different approaches, while also addressing possible gender biases that undermine efforts to keep more women in science.
By Marla Vacek Broadfoot