Tuesday, May 31, 2005

a quiet roar


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Women in Science: 4000 Years and Counting...
What Socrates Either Knew or Feared.

“Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior.” - Socrates.
(Talk about a man’s rationale against equality.)

We hear in Socrates words, the suggestion of woman’s ability to guide, create, teach–qualities we associate with leadership. These capabilities are, in fact, the natural extension of woman’s role as nurturer, teacher, and decision-maker. The hook or contradiction in Socrates words is, of course, that historically we know that women have had to struggle to gain that equality.
Sumeria and Babylon were the first cities to develop astronomy and math. En Hedu’ (c. 2354 BCE) was the first female name to be recorded in technical history and one of the major players in the creation of those cities. She helped create several observatories to view the stars and the moon and also helped create one of the first calendars (Regents of the University of Michigan, 1997.). For at least the past 4000 years women have thought, created and built. Why isn’t there more women scientists?
In the early 1900’s Susan B. Anthony (1873), the American Suffragist, stated bluntly, “The only question left to be settled now is, are women persons?” Speaking of the male viewpoint, Evelyn Fox Keller (Peterson, 1995) says, “We see it at the very beginning of modern science with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. The Royal Society of London, one of the first modern scientific societies, was founded in order to ‘raise a masculine philosophy.’ ...scientists had a particular commitment to the notion that there was something special about what they were doing. In the most general sense, science meant ‘thinking like a man.’ It was committed to an idea of objectivity that was from the beginning equated with masculinity in a very curious way.” (Established in 1662 The Royal Society did not admit a woman until 1945.) When scientists wear blinders, science is sure to fail. Science can never succeed by using only one view, by using only one tool, by using only one person’s thoughts, by looking at something only one way. We cannot back out of some invention, some theory, some solution whether or not the originator was female or male. Science must include all persons equally, regardless of sex or color, if we are to advance in science and as humanity.
The underrepresentation of women in science is alarming. First, it raises the disturbing possibility that the field of science functions in ways that prevents or hinders women from becoming part of it. If this is so, those in the discipline need to evaluate their practices to ensure that fair and equal treatment is being provided to all potential and current scientists. Practices that exclude women are not only unethical, but they are likely to thwart science’s progress, as potential contributors to the field are discouraged from participation.
Another reason to be concerned about the underrepresentation of women in science relates to demographic trends in the U.S., which suggest a significant decrease in the number of white males entering college during the next decade. At the same time, the number of jobs requiring scientific or engineering training will continue to increase. Because white males have traditionally constituted the vast majority of trained scientists and engineers in this country, and the fact that the number of white males entering school is decreasing, experts have predicted that a critical labor shortage is likely early in the next century (Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology, 1988, Widnall, 1988). To confront this possibility, the federal government has begun to expend resources to study the problem further. A notable example is the establishment of a National Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. Their final report, issued in 1989, lists a number of government and industrial programs aimed at preventing a labor shortage by increasing the number of women and minorities trained as scientists and engineers (Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology, 1988). The Department of Energy (DOE) has also addressed the issue by releasing a report stating that, “Women are leaving or not entering science, engineering, and mathematics disciplines” (DOE, 1995). “The present DOE does not reflect the society it serves.” The report even admits “that the DOE does not adequately accommodate or recognize the needs of women in the work force (DOE, 1995).”
Obstacles for Women and Pipeline Shrinkage
It is well known that women are significantly underrepresented in scientific fields in the United States. As of 1987-1988, women constituted slightly more than half of the U.S. population and 45% of employed workers in the U.S. During the same time period, women made up 20% of physicians and, at the doctoral level, 35% of psychologists, 22% of life scientists, and 10% of mathematicians employed in the U.S. On the other hand, there are some disciplines in which women represent an even smaller proportion at the doctoral level: in 1987-88, 8% of physical scientists, and only 2.5% of engineers were women (National Science Foundation, 1988). This pattern of decreasing representation is generally consistent with that of scientific and engineering fields (Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology, 1988, Widnall, 1988.). It is often described as “pipeline shrinkage” meaning that as women move along the academic pipeline, their percentage continues to shrink.
Clearly, to increase the number of women in science, one must first increase the number of women trained in the discipline. Too few women with bachelor’s degrees in science translates into too few women in both industry and academia. Moreover, because of the documented positive effects of same-sex role models (Hornig, 1984), it is also important to consider why women drop out in higher numbers than do men even later in their academic training. Too few women with doctorate degrees results in too few women faculty members. This in turn means inadequate numbers of role models for younger women in the process of becoming scientists.
The majority of obstacles for women scientists and engineers, and to a lesser degree, by all other women employed outside the home can be seen in four primary and interrelated challenges. They are: difficulties with self-esteem, lack of mentoring and role models, gender discrimination, and difficulties balancing career and family responsibilities. Of course, since these problems are not unique to women becoming scientists, the solutions proposed may also have wider applicability.
Diminished Self-esteem
As Gardner, Mason, and Matyas (1989) point out, persistence in science and mathematics is related to: confidence in one’s own abilities, encouragement from parents, teachers, and peers, belief that learned skills will be needed later in life, and belief that it is possible for anybody, regardless of sex, race, or socio-economic status to become a scientist or engineer. These authors also point out that research shows that female students tend to be less confident in their science and math abilities, receive less encouragement and don’t think science and math skills will be useful to them in the future. Self confidence may well begin to be developed at a young age, in the classroom. Curricula and teaching techniques need to be used, especially those that use female participation, to encourage women to enter science (Gardner et al. 1989). Betty Vetter (1996) states that, “There is no evidence that girls are born less inclined to math or mechanics than boys, but there is strong evidence that society believes this to be the case and encourages a division between boys and girls.” She goes on to say, “Classroom attitudes of teachers, books and subtle but constant societal pressures persuaded children that boys are better at science, engineering and math than are girls (Vetter, 1996).” Susan Bailey, the executive director of Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women gives two recommendations for gender-neutral class room: (1) Place less emphasis on competition and speed, and more emphasis on cooperative group work; and (2) increase the focus on practical, real-life applications of mathematics and science (Weld, 1997).
Several studies of college students have shown that women experience a much greater lack of self-esteem during their college years than do men. In the 1988 American Association for the Advancement of Science Presidential Lecture (Widnall, 1988), Sheila Widnall reported on the Illinois Valedictorian Project (Arnold, 1987). This project followed 80 high school valedictorians (46 women, 34 men) through their college years. At the end of their college careers, the women had a slightly higher final grade point average than the men (3.6 vs. 3.5). More importantly, the women had experienced a significantly higher loss of self-esteem. The self-confidence of the men increased slightly during college, while that of the women decreased significantly. It seems clear that the diminished self-esteem of female college students contributes to the pipeline shrinkage problem. Indeed, while the studies that Widnall reports on refer to self-esteem problems of undergraduates, similar problems may be even more significant at the graduate level, where students receive primarily subjective feedback from their advisors and peers, as opposed to the more objective feedback of test scores and course grades available to undergraduates. An additional complicating factor is the differing communication styles of men and women. Studies have shown that in group settings, women are interrupted more frequently than men, and their contributions are often either attributed to men or ignored altogether (Hall, 1982, 1986, Widnall, 1988). Such experiences are likely to exacerbate an existing lack of self-confidence.
Diminished self-esteem may well cause a woman to not consider valid career options, because she believes that she is not sufficiently well qualified. Even women who consider themselves to be as well qualified as most of their male peers may lower their career goals when they recognize the additional problems that women may face. As for a women’s aspiration, Widnall points out that, “One of the most effective antidotes for these uncertainties about career goals was the opportunity for successful professional experiences: independent research, professional employment, opportunity for interaction with graduate students, and the support and encouragement of a faculty mentor (Widnall, 1988, p. 1743).”
Those who train women to become scientists need to become aware of the problem of diminished self-esteem, and work to combat it. Science faculty need to make an effort to draw women into their research projects. While this is of course true of faculty members training graduate students, efforts to include females in research projects should ideally begin at the undergraduate level. Support must therefore be given to funding that will facilitate this, both at the national and institutional levels. An example of a model program is the National Science Foundation’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program (NSF, 1989a), the goal of which is to provide research opportunities for undergraduates in the sciences. RUI awards are limited to projects that include significant undergraduate participation. By using programs such as the RUI to bring women to research early in their careers, faculty members may help combat diminished self-esteem in women and its impact on attrition.
Women in our society often have a tendency, more so than men, to place a higher value on what others think of them. In addition, women are “more likely to fix the blame internally–to cite their own inadequacy as the source of difficulty” when encountering problems. “Men (tend) to place responsibility for difficulties outside themselves” (Ware et al., 1985). A male student’s response to a poor test grade, may be to blame the examination as a poor judge of his knowledge or to blame the professor for inadequately preparing him for the examination. Women are more likely to believe they are unintelligent when they receive just one bad exam grade and are in general less confident of their performance. Subsequently they make important decisions, such as the decision to change majors, based on either an inaccurate appraisal of their performance or on an insufficient amount of data such as one poor test grade. In a study of undergraduate biology majors, Marsha Lakes Matyas determined that the women in her sample had higher average GPAs than men, but dropped the major at a greater rate because of personal factors (Matyas 1988). Between 70% and 80% of females who switched out of the science track felt discouraged and suffered a loss of self-esteem even though their grades were the same as those of men (Seymour 1993).
Mentoring and Role Models
According to Fort and Varney (1989), students in grades 2-12 see scientists as mostly male, mostly white, and mostly beneficial, though many see them as fictional and often of the mad, Dr. Frankenstein mold. In their study of 1654 students, only 1% of the boy’s essays and only 8% of the girl’s essays concerned female scientists. Interestingly, these students seldom described members of minorities as scientists (Fort and Varney, 1989). This is partly understandable, for much of the last few centuries, female scientists have been figured as invisible partners to fathers, husbands, lovers, or brothers (Schiebinger 1989). So, as Klein (1989) asks, “Where are the role models?” Klein’s study says that they are there, but not recognized.
A major problem facing women in the process of becoming scientists is a shortage of mentors. Mentors play a crucial, though usually informal, role in the training of young scientists. In general, a mentor shares with a less experienced colleague information about how to get research funding, avenues for publication, the informal power structure within a department and within the discipline as a whole, and so on. Mentors may invest a good deal of time in their junior colleagues and may offer them important opportunities for research collaboration.
The “old boy network” which draws promising male students into research projects and mentored relationships with faculty tends to exclude women (Seymour 1992b). Currently, women are much more likely than men to be mentored by female faculty members (Arnold, 1987, NSF, 1989b). There is no reason that men cannot serve as mentors for women, given an appropriate sensitivity to the problems that women in science may face. Indeed, because the number of women scientists shrinks as one progresses through the pipeline, it is unreasonable to expect senior women to mentor all of the junior women. Men in science must also support younger women.
Related to mentoring is the issue of role models. While young scientists can benefit from mentors of either gender, it is desirable for women to be exposed to female role models. A role model can serve as evidence that a successful career in science is not only a possibility, but a normal and unremarkable option for women. For students, female faculty members prove, by their very existence, that Ph.D. degrees and faculty slots can be attained by women (Hall, 1982, 1986). Junior women who have access to senior female faculty members adjust to their positions and establish research programs more quickly than those who do not (Failor, 1990). The role of women in history and science also needs to be pointed out to young students (Klein 1989). After all, it was Marie Lavoisier, not her tax-collecting, and then guillotined husband, who started modern chemistry. She wrote the text; he was dead (Vare and Ptacek 1988). Beatrix Potter was the first to discover the true alga-fungus nature of lichens though, because females were excluded, a male read her paper before the Royal Society. She was a successful scientific illustrator (Vare and Ptacek 1988) before becoming the author of Peter Rabbit.
Of course, the only real solution to the lack of role models is to increase the number of women in science. Until this situation improves, programs that make successful women more visible can help. Examples are programs that bring women scientists to campuses for a short period of time to give a talk, or for a longer period of time in a visiting faculty position. Activities of the former sort can be encouraged by anyone who is involved in a departmental colloquium or seminar series. Invitation for a longer period requires additional funding; one source of support is the NSF’s Visiting Professorships for Woman program (Sloat, 1984).
At the undergraduate level, it is useful to design programs in which undergraduates are paired with female graduate students and/or faculty. Examples of successful programs of this kind include one run by the Women’s Science and Engineering Network at Stanford University (Sursock, 1987) and the Women in Science Program at the University of Michigan (Widnall, 1988). Such programs can have the additional benefit of providing graduate women with the experience of being viewed as capable and successful scientists.
Without sufficient role models, high school girls may end their mathematics and science training prematurely, thus precluding a major in science or engineering before they even begin college. High school guidance counselors and math and science teachers can play a role here by encouraging capable young women to consider science and engineering as valid career options. Perhaps the most extensive program is administered by the Math/Science Network, a non-profit organization that organizes conferences under the title of “Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics.” These conferences bring high school girls together with local female scientists, where they’re discussions may be augmented with career awareness workshops in which participating students can meet with local scientists and engineers to learn about career paths and the educational prerequisites for technical careers (Failor, 1990). Ultimately, the best solution is to hire, and retain, female faculty who can serve as role models. Women faculty members who have families can also choose to share their stories about balancing work and family. “The faculty are very important in creating an environment that is supportive of women students” (Finholt 1990). According to the National Resource Council, “the presence of women faculty at all ranks” would be a “a signal to women students that they will be respected and treated fairly” (NRC 1991).
The issue of gender discrimination is of course a large one, which cannot be discussed in great depth here. Gender discrimination means patronizing behavior and assumptions that women are less qualified and/or committed than men, regardless of whether the assumptions are conscious or unconscious. As a part of the cumulative thwarting of a female professional identity, devaluation of woman’s scientific contributions has been found to be widespread (Benjamin, 1991). It takes many forms, including crediting the male partner in a scientific collaborations and ignoring the work of women (Scott, 1990). A detailed discussion of the problem of gender discrimination as it relates to women in computer science departments can be found in the 1983 report “Barriers to Equality in Academia,” which was written by a group of female graduate students and research staff in the computer science department at MIT (Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T., 1983). This influential report notes that the cumulative effects of subtle discrimination may be even more harmful than relatively infrequent incidents of overt discrimination:
“Often, subtle behavior is not recognized as discriminatory, for two reasons. First, the actions often are not intended to be discriminatory; the people who convey biased attitudes toward women may be well-intentioned. Nevertheless, the effect of their behavior is to undermine the professional image of women held by their colleagues and the women themselves. Second, any particular incident might appear trivial when viewed by itself. However, when women experience such incidents daily, the overall effect of the environment is much greater than the sum of the individual incidents. Because subtle discrimination is harder to recognize than overt discrimination, it sometimes does more damage. Constant exposure to negative comments diminishes a woman’s self-esteem and may lead her to believe that she cannot succeed (MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T., 1983, p. 3).”
Several reports issued by the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) of the Association of American Colleges address the subject of gender discrimination as it relates to women undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty (Hall, 1982, 1986). These reports concur with the MIT report’s observations on the chilling effect of cumulative incidents of discrimination:
“Overtly disparaging remarks about women, as well as more subtle differential behaviors, can have a critical and lasting effect. When they occur frequently--especially when they involve “gatekeepers” who teach required courses, act as advisors, or serve as chairs of departments--such behaviors can have a profound negative impact on women’s academic and career development by causing students to switch majors or subspecialties within majors. Minimizing the development of the individual collegial relationships with faculty which are crucial for future professional development, dampening career aspirations, and undermining confidence” (Hall, 1986, p. 3).
A particular manifestation of the differential attention paid to females in the field is what has been called the “invisibility syndrome.” Not only is the percentage of women in science smaller than the percentage of women in the general population, but also women are underrepresented in many important professional activities. At professional meetings, women biologists contribute presentations in about the same proportion in which they are represented in the membership of the associations. However, as prestigious invited speakers, women are often underrepresented. At the meetings of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in 1989, none of the symposia organizers and only six percent of the invited speakers were women. In contrast, half the speakers in the category of contributed papers were women (Fox, 1996).
Ideally, the representation of women in the perceived power structure of a community should reflect their numbers in that community. The author of the MIT study, state that “responsibility for change rests with the entire community, not just with the women,” and that “many problems would be alleviated by increasing the number of women” (Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T., 1983, p. 1).
Balancing Responsibilities
A final issue that is of central concern involves the difficulties in balancing the responsibilities of a career in science with the responsibilities of raising a family. Concern with this problem may lead young women to abandon the possibility of a career in science at a very early stage in their training. Widnall reported, “Researchers linked lowered career ambitions in part to the unresolved dual-career problem” (Widnall, 1988, p. 1743). Actual difficulties encountered in achieving this balance may result in women leaving science later in their careers. Women considering or pursuing careers in science are not very different from women in a wide range of other careers–or, for that matter from many men in those careers. While achieving such a balance may be difficult for people pursuing many different careers, there are certain aspects of a tenure-track position in a scientific field that render the balancing act particularly difficult (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989).
The typical “tenure-track” career path appears to be generally incompatible with outside interests and responsibilities including, but not limited to, childbearing and rearing. Junior faculty in tenure-track positions (like junior lawyers working towards partnerships, junior investment bankers trying to become vice presidents, etc.) are expected to devote enormous amounts of time and energy to their careers – so much time and energy that serious outside interests are precluded or at least greatly constrained. The model for an academic career was developed during a time in which faculty positions were primarily occupied by men who had wives to tend to their home responsibilities. The problem is that the “helpmate-in-the-background” model is inappropriate for today’s society, in which both men and women have the right, and often have the obligation, to have careers.
Further complicating the situation is the fact of women’s “biological clocks.” Most students do not complete the Ph.D. until the middle or late 20s and tenure is typically not granted until the middle 30s. Hence, the childbearing years directly coincide with the period of time during which a woman is completing her Ph.D. and working towards tenure. Both rearing small children and achieving tenure are tremendously time-consuming efforts; doing both at the same time seems to many women to be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible (Etzkowitz, 1992).
It is important to work to change the “helpmate-in-the-background” mode. It must be possible for both women and men to work hard and well at a career, without neglecting their personal lives. This will eventually be advantageous for both women and men.

There appear to be clear and relatively easily implemented solutions for some problems, while for others, such as the apparent conflict between child-rearing and gaining tenure, the issues are more complex and further study is required to develop effective solutions. Complete resolution of some of these problems will depend upon significant societal changes. Ultimately, everything hinges on increasing the number of women in the field. Society must make sure that increased representation of women is not stalled because of policies or practices of science educators or employers.
There is great satisfaction to be found in one’s work, but there is also great satisfaction to be found in one’s personal life. No one should have to choose one at the expense of the other. More people understanding science and technology will only strengthen our lives, our work and our world. A web of support is needed to provide encouragement and an example to follow. Women that are in a position to make changes must nurture, guide, and teach as Socrates likely understood. They must reach down to young women, and men, and show them a path paved with encouragement, as only they can.
Scientists as well as humanity needs to develop mutual respect across boundaries of difference in several areas: socio-economic boundaries, cultural and gender boundaries, as well as disciplinary boundaries. Rejection of stereotypes is especially important This is particularly problematical for women in science, and it affects everyone. Women’s advancement in science will be stunted unless we can provide more creative solutions to their combined roles in the family and workplace. Science must permit itself – at all levels of education and career in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology – to develop and nurture talent by being independent of background, independent of perspective, and independent of any of the labels we apply to individuals. The ultimate objective will be realized when our society is able to draw on talent freely so that we can address the challenges that confront us. To see these changes, the climate of science and engineering has to be made more accommodating and more engaging. Everyone has a contribution to make. A woman’s contribution is unique and is needed for the progression of not only the American society but also the world.

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