Women in Science (or Not)

After a few drinks with male scientists at a bar, I was hit with the question, “So what do you babes in the sciences want?” The quick answer I gave, after suppressing an obscenity, had to do with creating a level playing field. But that’s not what I really want. I want retribution, remuneration, and recognition, right now. But I would settle for an even split between male and female scientists in all favorable factors for success, immediately.

I’m not just talking about helping women and girls; this is part of a much bigger concern about meeting the future needs of our work force.

My bra-burning throw-down may have taken place in a bar, but in my office, I am faced almost daily with the reality of the roles women play or don’t get to play in academe, and more specifically, in the sciences.

We simply cannot let another woman begin her scientific career convinced that discrimination in the sciences was eliminated in some prior generation. It’s just not so.

“Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” a story in The New York Times recently asked. The problem is nothing new. The exigency is. We all know the scenario(s)—everything is rosy until you begin to climb the success rungs. Data from the National Science Foundation show that women make up about half of the doctorates in science and engineering in the United States, but they are only 21 percent of the full professors in science disciplines and 5 percent of professors in engineering.

Millions of dollars have been and are being spent to encourage women to go into science and science-related fields. Yet women are still outnumbered, out networked, outranked, and out salaried by men in the scientific work force.


Factors repeatedly discussed include socialization, sexism, and lack of “role models.” The last is a curious term. A professional role model, by definition, is outdated in the minds of younger minds in the throes of making career decisions.

We have not moved fast or far enough. At the end of the 19th century, only a few American women had been awarded doctoral degrees. With some rare exceptions, universities in the United States did not grant them such degrees. Rather, American women went to Europe to study, aided by a “foundation” set up by the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. Surprisingly, German universities granted doctorates to American women a decade before German women were even allowed to enter the university.

It would not be until the 1970s that America would witness greater numbers of women in academe, as students and, eventually, scholars. That critical mass of women was a crucial factor in increased female student interest in the sciences. It was brought about by the women’s liberation movement—a bulldozing factor—and thanks to a single law: Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, which specifically prohibited sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal financial assistance. We were still not moving fast or far enough.

It’s not just numbers and percentages. We want the same benefits and powers as men in science—at least half the divvies. We can handle it.

And when we shine in research, we want public recognition—which would increase the number of scientific prizes given to women. Only 2.9 percent of Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology and medicine have been awarded to women. We deserve 50 percent. As students, we want good instruction in the sciences from both sexes. Then we want solid professional positions with the opportunity for input, tenure, full professorships with appropriate salaries. High-level administrative positions. More female college presidents to be our “role models.”

Ultimately, we want to rid the sciences of sexism, both in overt and subtle forms. Women are often alone in a laboratory setting, and it doesn’t get better when we move on in academe. With a few more females in each setting, we could establish some old girls’ clubs to provide networking without bias. That is particularly important in fields with serious shortages of women, like physics and engineering.

We want solutions. A starter kit should include:

•Enforcement of existing antidiscrimination laws.

•The assignment of women to science advisory boards, the editorial boards of science journals, and science-policy positions.

•Elimination of cultural bias and covert discrimination.

Cultural bias exists within and beyond academe. Women want a work-life balance—including the possibility of having children. Climbing the scientific ladder is complicated for women by the fact that the windows of opportunity to have children and to be successful researchers, postdoctoral fellows, or assistant professors occur at about the same time. For those women just starting out, there shouldn’t have to be a “fork in the road”: family or professional responsibilities. (It should be noted that a huge proportion of women scientists and engineers are unmarried.)

Are women genetically hard-wired to lack mathematical and science skills? There seems to be no valid proof. What is true is that around adolescence, girls deliberately dumb down to be socially accepted. That needs to stop.

Why must female scientists be portrayed as young white women in white coats with pen holders, wearing black-rimmed glasses which, when removed, reveal Julia Roberts?

Today there are hundreds of us—brilliant, diverse, good-looking women who are professionals, who happen to be spouses, significant others, mothers, lovers, and simply excellent scientists. We are here. Give us the right platform, with appropriate support, and we will sparkle and help the next generation do the same.

Ann Adjie Shirley-Henderson is associate provost and dean for the sciences at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a professor of biological sciences at Hunter College.

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