Intersection of race, sex, science prompts questions

4 min read

Why are we still talking about this?

In 2002, there were no African-American, Hispanic, or Native American women in tenured or tenure-track positions in the top 50 computer science departments in the country.

That lone statistic illustrates that, despite progress made by women in academic science appointments over the past three decades, there is a long way to go, according to Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor of biology and of gender studies at Brown University.

Fausto-Sterling, who delivered an hour-long talk on race, gender, and science Thursday evening (Feb. 15) in the Fairchild Biochemistry Building, wove together statistics, anecdotes, and published firsthand accounts of would-be scientists to explain the problems still facing women interested in science as a career.

Though overt discrimination has declined over time, both female and minority students, she said, still face adverse conditions and discrimination that make it tough to get into science in the first place, tough to stay in, and tough to advance.

Fausto-Sterling’s talk, part of the Women, Science, and Society Series sponsored by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity and the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, drew on published accounts by female students who entered college interested in a science career in which they cited reasons for staying in the field and reasons to switch to another field. The firsthand accounts told of economic pressures for those from lower-income backgrounds, the need to care for family members, discrimination from faculty, and the belief of other students – and in a few cases even of themselves – that they don’t belong in the field.

The situation isn’t entirely bleak, however, Fausto-Sterling said. From 1974 to 2004, the percentage of doctoral degrees granted to women in the life sciences has risen to about 50 percent, up from roughly a quarter in 1974. In the social sciences, which had higher representation to begin with, the numbers are over 50 percent.

But the figures for the physical sciences and engineering, where progress has also been made, continue to lag. From fewer than 10 percent in 1974, women were granted 28 percent of doctorate degrees in the physical sciences in 2004. Engineering still has the longest way to go, but starting from almost zero doctorates to women in 1974, women received 18 percent of doctoral degrees in 2004.

“That’s part of the story and it’s a good story in that things have changed since 1970, but it’s not a good story in the sense that there’s room for more change,” Fausto-Sterling said.

The increased number of doctorates granted in the sciences is not reflected in the field’s higher levels, Fausto-Sterling said. The proportion of women falls at each subsequent level. In the life sciences, for example, women make up just 30 percent of associate professors. The numbers across fields fall at each step, with even fewer women becoming full professors.

While the situation for women overall is slowly improving, Fausto-Sterling said the situation for minority women is “dismal.”

Although African-American women earn more science and engineering doctorate degrees than African-American men, African-American men hold a greater percentage of faculty positions than women. Overall, the proportion of minority women in tenured science positions is extremely low, and actually fell between 1989 and 1997, Fausto-Sterling said.

“While the overall trend for women is going up, the trend for minority group women is not,” Fausto-Sterling said.

Fausto-Sterling said the real question that needs to be answered is why we’re still asking why this is the case. She presented anecdotes illustrating that similar issues were facing minority and women scientists a hundred years ago. Questions of innate ability, she said, completely miss the point, saying that a close examination of studies that indicate differences in innate ability for science between different groups reveals methodological problems.

The critical issues, she said, are familiar. People from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have to work while attending school. Educational disparities exist up and down the educational path that leads to a career in science. In addition, women carry much of the child-care and family burdens. Outright discrimination, while declining, still exists.

Fausto-Sterling said leadership at the top of institutions can have a big effect, instituting programs to level the playing field for women and minorities.

“Leadership is important,” Fausto-Sterling said.