May 13, 1999
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Barriers to Women In Science Discussed

Symposium looks into gender issues involved in professional advancement in the sciences

By William J. Cromie
Gazette Staff


Howard Georgi has discussed careers in physics with (from left) graduate student Anastasia Volovic, Jenny Hoffman '99, and Nozomi Nishimura, '98-99. Georgi co-chairs a national committee dedicated to promoting interest in and opportunities for women in science and engineering.

Women have come a long way as scientists and engineers; a few of them are heads of universities and chief executive officers in scientific and engineering companies. The problem is with the words "a few" instead of "roughly half." Despite 30 years of effort to close the gender gap, it hasn't happened. In 1973, for example, roughly 3 percent of tenured professors among the nation's scientists and engineers were women; by 1995, women still only accounted for less than 10 percent of full professorships in these fields.

The effort to determine why women aren't getting ahead, and what can be done about it, moved to the national front burner last month when the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) of the National Research Council held its first symposium on these issues in Washington, D.C. The Council is the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious and influential private group of scientists and engineers in the nation (with a 94 percent male membership). The symposium took place a week after the first meeting of a congressionally mandated commission to examine career barriers facing women, minorities, and the disabled in science.

'Unconscious Discrimination'

"I don't think there's conscious discrimination," said Howard Georgi, co-chair of CWSE and a professor of physics at Harvard, at the symposium. "However, it's clear something about the way we do things amounts to unconscious discrimination."

One way this happens is by selecting job candidates on the basis of assertiveness and singlemindedness, characteristics that favor men, said Georgi. "There are probably other gender-related traits that we also select for, but I focus on these because they are particularly obvious and damaging," he noted.

When academic department heads and search committees look for the best scientists, they tend to exclude those who are not demonstrably assertive, even aggressive. In the minds of many males, that eliminates female candidates. Even when they do get hired, this cultural bias against female assertiveness puts women at a disadvantage for promotion.

"They may be perceived as good scientists but disagreeable people," Georgi said.

Cultural stereotyping begins in elementary school, or even earlier, symposium participants agreed. Girls are pushed toward certain careers at an early age. Those who excel in science and mathematics may be labeled "geeks" or "nerds."

From such pressures springs the so-called "pipeline" problem. The number of women in the hiring pipeline is always fewer than the number of men, and the female flow decreases with the seniority level of a job opening. "As you move along the educational and labor continuum, the gender gap becomes more and more pronounced," Marye Ann Fox, chancellor of North Carolina State University, told the CWSE symposium.

"Sometimes people use the relative shortage of women among job candidates as an excuse for not trying hard enough to hire women," Georgi added.

Symposium panelists agreed that they and other advocates must try harder to identify ways in which women are lost all along the pipeline. Georgi urged greater flexibility in hiring; for example, by not defining the area of searches too narrowly. "If you write a search letter, ask your informants to list the best women and minorities, even if they don't rate them as highly as top men," he said. "This will at least get people thinking about the issue, and may turn up candidates that would be overlooked otherwise."

The problem goes beyond recruiting. Once women are hired, "they are frequently overlooked for program committees, editorial boards, awards, and honors," notes Barbara Grosz, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard. "In my experience, it is usually the case that when women are chosen [for recognition], the standard is higher. Being on program committees and editorial boards and being selected for awards matters to getting ahead. To the extent that women and their accomplishments are 'invisible' to the men in their fields, this is a great barrier."

Solutions Offered

To better fill the beginning of the pipeline, several speakers at the symposium addressed the problem of getting both girls and boys interested in science. Marcia Lynn, of the University of California, suggested teaching science by controversy. Instead of a parade of dry facts, information should be presented as an ongoing struggle to find the truth, she said. Controversy would impress on young people that they are dealing with a body of knowledge not yet fully formed, one that they themselves could mold or change.

Richard Tapia, of Rice University in Houston, Texas, described a successful mentoring program in the sciences for minority students. "The pipeline problem with minorities is much worse than for white women," Georgi comments. "Solving it is clearly something we need to do, and mentoring works when you have dedicated people willing to spend a lot of time on it."

About 10 years ago, computer science seemed to be a bright spot for women, noted Lilian Wu of IBM, a member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and co-chair of CWSE. New departments of computer science were being started at colleges and universities all over the country, providing opportunities not available in what one scientist referred to as "old boys clubs."

But the results have been disappointing so far. Women comprise half the enrollment in high school computer science classes, but earn only 28 percent of college degrees in the field and hold only 6 percent of full professorships, according to William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering.

"That's pretty frustrating," Georgi admits, "and we don't quite know what to do about it."

The faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been discussing gender equality for two decades or more, noted Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor there and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Despite that, M.I.T. recently admitted to discriminating against women in their senior faculty. That incident typifies the whole problem, many women say: lots of lip service but not a great deal of progress.

"I think one of the powerful messages from the M.I.T. report is that even those who are thought of as 'successful' have not escaped discrimination," comments a senior woman scientist at Harvard who does not want to be identified. "Discrimination remains an ongoing fact in our scientific lives, one that takes a toll. Yes, we have succeeded, but I think it is useful for our universities, our scientific fields, and our male colleagues to consider how much more we might have done. We might have been much more successful, which would have been beneficial not only to ourselves but to our universities and our fields, had we not been paying all the various costs of facing and fighting discrimination."

The symposium ended with Marcie Greenwood, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, noting that the number of white men going into science is decreasing. She left the audience with this question: will the shortfall be made up by immigrants from other nations, or will we succeed in getting U.S. women and minorities to fill the gap?

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College