Science vs. the female scientist


IN THE last two years we have witnessed a flurry of concern over the under-representation of women and minorities in science and engineering. The concern does not arise from rrTC belated appreciation that women and minorities have been denied access to careers in science.

Rather it comes from projections of a significant shortfall in scientists around the turn of the century caused, at least in part, by the reduced number of white males choosing scientific careers.

This reminds me of the explanation given by a president of an all-male university for why he favored co-education. He explained that unless the institution admitted women, it would no longer compete for the best male students, who were being attracted to co-ed campuses. The inclusion of women, in his eyes, was a solution to a problem.

Likewise, today women and minorities are viewed as one solution to a manpower problem in the sciences. Despite the base underpinnings of the motive, this may be a unique opportunity to bring about a greater participation of women and minorities in science. In fact, many universities have commissioned studies on improving recruiting and retention of women students and faculty in science and engineering. Programs abound in government and the philanthropic community to encourage the inclusion of women and minorities.

What are the realistic prospects for these endeavors? First, we need to understand what has stood in the way of women in science.

You can look at the last 20 years in two ways, depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist. The optimist sees that between 1966 and 1988, the percentage of women receiving science, medical or engineering degrees increased dramatically. In 1966, 23 percent of the bachelor's degrees in science were awarded to women; by 1988 that figure had risen to 40 percent. Women now comprise 38 percent of medical school enrollments. As for science doctorates, women earned 9 percent of the total in 1966 and 27 percent in 1988.

The first thing a pessimist would find in the same 20-year span is that the increase in women in scientific and medical careers has not been steady. The second thing a pessimist would note is that the women who have been trained are not in leadership positions in proportion to their representation in the field.

The most common response to this is that enough time has not passed for women graduates to have acquired the appropriate seniority. But this is not the case.

Finally the pessimist would point out that the increases are the average of highly disparate disciplines and hide large differences between fields. For example, in psychology women receive more than half of new doctorates, while in engineering, they earn just 7 percent. If you look carefully, almost no progress has been made in increasing the number of women practicing physics, mathematics and engineering in the last 50 years.

If one takes as a measure of success those who have reached the status of principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health grant, just 19 percent are women. Yet where are the other 19 percent who received M.D.s and Ph.D.s? The answer is that they are in non-tenure-track positions in which they often cannot compete for research funds.

What the different experiences of women in the physical and life sciences tell us is that multiple forces are at work to retard the rate at which women enter the scientific work force. Yet I believe the common thread is the role that culture plays in determining career choices for women.

The cultural issues begin with the low expectations that our education system sets on the performance of females in science, especially in physics and math. This culminates in the hierarchical culture of the laboratory, which evolved in the absence of females. This notion that cultural biases are at the basis of the problem is sobering, as cultures are difficult to change. However, if we have to change the culture, we need to understand its underpinnings and where pressure points lie.

Let's begin with education. A study by Joan Girgus for the Pew Charitable Trust Science Education Program revealed that differences in the two sexes can be detected as early as 9 years of age, when girls report fewer science-related experiences, such as looking through a telescope.

By 13, girls are less likely than boys to read science articles and books, watch science shows or have science hobbies. The cues girls receive in these formative years are not always subtle. Mattel recently marketed a Barbie doll which says, "I hate math!" when poked in the stomach. I shudder to think what Ken says back!

Another example comes from the experience of a young assistant professor at Princeton. In high school she obtained the highest grades in science. Shortly before graduation, her principal called her in and asked if she would be willing to forgo the traditional science award so that the second-ranked student, a male, could receive it. The explanation was that he would be better able to use it, as he was headed for a career in science.

These are shocking stories, the more so because they occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, not the 1950s. This failure of our society, particularly our educators, to equate women with careers in science, and the propensity to discount their achievements when they persist with this ambition, lies at the heart of the problem.

In universities the trend of discouraging women from science careers continues. The number of declared freshman science majors of both sexes is three times the number who will actually graduate with a degree in science or engineering.

However the percentage decline is greater for women than men. The only exception to this is instructive: women's colleges lose far fewer of their science undergraduates to other fields. Surely this is telling us that in an environment which places high expectations on women's achievement, women flourish in science.

When questioned about their experiences as science majors, women at co-ed colleges complain of feelings of isolation in a large class of males, of being ignored by faculty and of not being taken seriously. Women who begin college well qualified and strongly motivated lose their self-esteem.

I think the difference between the numbers who overcome these hurdles in the physical vs. the biological sciences is directly attributable to the number of women practicing each discipline.

It is slowly becoming accepted that women make good biologists and consequently women are no longer discouraged from following this path. Put another way, the rich tend to get richer.

All but the most determined women will tend to gravitate to the environment which is most positive and rewarding, and that tends to be where other women have already led the way.

Shirley M. Tilghman is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor of molecular biology at Princeton. This is the first of two parts.

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