It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times.

At Harvard’s fourth National Symposium on the Advancement of Women in Science, it was clear why female scientists need to keep meeting like this.

The proportions of women in many scientific fields, notably computer science, are not just low but falling. Some major funding organizations have done little to advance the cause of women in science. And work-at-home scientists, even those on the cutting edge of space exploration, still have to explain to their husbands at the end of the day why the children’s toys are strewn all over the living room.

On the other hand, participants described field after field as being in a “golden age” of one kind or another.

Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration and keynote speaker at the symposium (April 13-15), used that phrase to describe both the nation’s air safety status and the degree of activity going on to “reinvent” aviation as traffic pushes relentlessly past 700 million passengers a year.

Sara Seager, assistant professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), described her field, the study of extrasolar planets, as “truly a frontier,” and noted, “Every month there’s a new press release” on another planet discovered.

And even in a mature field like computer science, there are many open problems to study, as Ruzena Bajcsy of the University of California, Berkeley, said, noting, “When I started in the computer field, the computer that you now have on your PDA filled a whole room.”

Frances Allen, an IBM Fellow Emerita at the T.J. Watson Research Laboratory and the first female winner of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award, offered an explanation for the level of participation by women in her field. When she was starting out in the 1950s, in the early days of computers, before there was a field of computer science, programming was open to people, including women, from a wide range of backgrounds. But as the field matured and became more structured in the 1960s, industry began requiring its new hires to have engineering degrees. That tended to shut out women. “The workplace changed immensely. And in my view, the field has not recovered since.”

She called the number of women in the field a “tragedy” because of the need for “diversity of opinion and knowledge and information and points of view” to solve scientific problems.

Among the pieces of advice given

  • n Beware the myth of “balance” between the personal and the professional. “Balance, imbalance — wherever you find yourself — my advice is make that choice and live with it,” Blakey told the group. “What I do is have an internal clock that tells me how much time to spend on the competing priorities. If there’s one thing I’ve tried to do, it’s whittling that list of priorities down to just what it needs to be — cutting it to just what I can handle. I don’t keep track of what I can’t handle, and I don’t worry about what I can’t control.”
  • n Learning from failure: “What I learned is that you’re not going to have breakthroughs if you don’t take huge risks,” Allen said. “All the work we did was good; it influenced future work even if it wasn’t successful for the project it was built for. One has to push the envelope as far as one can.”
  • n Communication skills: Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., whose professional honors include having an asteroid named after her (3530 Hammel), said, “There are hundreds of other people who are great scientists, but they can’t communicate to save their lives, or their careers … . Communication skills are as important as any math or physics course you’ll ever take.”

n The value of pursuing leadership positions: Lucy Sanders, co-founder and CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, described herself as a “reluctant leader” when she first was offered an opportunity to move up the ladder at Bell Labs. “It’s scary, because a leader is vulnerable to criticism. There’s opportunity for tremendous failure and risk taking. … But leadership is very creative. It’s a great deal of fun. Something that will force you to learn new skills. It will make you a better communicator, better at lateral thinking. Leadership can be learned … . Please, please go after leadership positions.”

The symposium, sponsored by Harvard’s Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe, featured 38 speakers; attendance at the sessions included about 20 graduate students and 70 to 80 undergraduates, of whom about 10 were from off campus, according to Vinita Alexander ’07, conference director. A group of about 15 high school girls from New Hampshire took part as well.