Reform, vigilance needed to boost women in science

6 min read

The pipeline isn’t the problem.

That was the message of speakers addressing the topic of low numbers of women in top academic positions in science and engineering Wednesday (Oct. 10). A national examination of data involving women’s participation in science described not the trickle of qualified candidates coming from high schools, as some had thought, but rather significant numbers of young women arriving at college interested in science.

“It was actually staggering for that not to be the case,” said Maria Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The pipeline is not simply the problem. In a number of fields, the pipeline is approaching gender parity.”

Zuber spoke at “Beyond Bias and Barriers: A Symposium Based on the National Academies Report on Women in Science and Engineering.” The event brought several speakers to the Radcliffe Gym Wednesday afternoon to discuss the results of a 2007 National Academy of Sciences report examining widespread practices that present hurdles to women in science and engineering.

The symposium was hosted by Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard Integrated Life Sciences.

Zuber, who served on the committee that produced the report, said that potential future scientists are lost in the transition from high school to college, in the transition from college to graduate school, and in the transition from gaining a doctorate to getting a job.

“Women interested in science and engineering careers are lost at every educational transition,” Zuber said.

Barbara Grosz, interim dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences, presented figures illustrating that Harvard is not immune to the trend. Grosz said that in the life sciences, 57 percent of undergraduates are women, while 45 percent of doctoral students are. That percentage continues to fall, however, with just 37 percent of postdoctoral fellows being women, 31 percent of assistant and associate professors, and just 13 percent of full professors.

“They’re here, we’re just losing them,” Grosz said. “We can’t blame them on K through 12. We’re losing the best.”

In the physical sciences, the decline starts with women making up 33 percent of physical sciences undergraduates, 39 percent of doctoral students, 16 percent of postdocs, 32 percent of assistant and associate professors, and just 7 percent of professors.

Grosz and Zuber were joined at the event by Nan Keohane, former Duke University president and member of the Harvard Corporation. Keohane is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs at Princeton University. Harvard Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard Medical School Dean for Faculty Affairs Ellice Lieberman, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Theda Skocpol also participated.

Several speakers praised one symposium organizer, Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE), as a good example of an organization that can help improve the situation. The group provides support for women graduate students in science and engineering through educational, social, and networking events.

HGWISE Co-Chair Amanda Evans introduced the symposium, saying that she hoped the discussion of the National Academy of Sciences report would help improve the status of women in science and engineering at Harvard.

“The recommendations stress the importance of cooperation in organizations at every level. We hope this discussion fosters that cooperation here at Harvard,” Evans said.

HGWISE can be just part of the solution, however. Speakers said the barriers to women are multiple and will require a concerted effort under strong leadership to overcome.

“There is no one place in the system that you can point to for the answer. Leadership is key but we need changes at every point,” Zuber said.

The traditional structure of an academic career is a big part of the problem, speakers said. Junior professors are required to devote themselves to their careers at just the time in life when many start families and have significant obligations at home. While that is an important constraint for women, who often bear the main responsibility for child care, it can also affect junior faculty who are men and who have a spouse who works.

“The problem is that some aspects of professional life are not the same for women as they are for men,” Keohane said. “Nor are they the same for those with significant child-care responsibilities as those without.”

While that is an important component of the problem, speakers said that is just part of it. Bias, often unconscious, also keeps women from advancing as quickly as men. Women in academia make less than men, are promoted more slowly, and hold fewer leadership positions.

The problem is particularly acute for minority women, who face barriers not only because of gender, but also because of race. The numbers of minority women in science and engineering are so small today, however, that they require special attention, Zuber said. Statistics can’t help us understand what is happening — or not happening — with them.

Speakers highlighted several programs that work to improve the status of women in science and engineering both at Harvard and at other institutions.

These include programs to make child care more available and affordable, extensions in the tenure process for junior faculty who become parents, mentoring and career advancement opportunities, and educational workshops for deans and department chairs to raise awareness.

At Harvard, Grosz singled out the creation of the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity as an important step. Grosz also praised the creation of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs in 2006, a large increase in Harvard’s child care scholarship fund, and grants for junior faculty to hire research help.

Grosz said there is an important opportunity today to re-design how academic careers proceed and to increase the numbers of women in science and engineering at Harvard. It may prove to be a critical juncture, she said, because with the new development in Allston, the University will be expanding its faculty in coming years. Those who gain those jobs may hold them for some time.

“We should lead in the redesign of the professoriate,” Grosz said. “Universities have been around for a long time. It’s time to think about what we ought to be like.”