Women in the Sciences

Five professors and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) are jointly pursuing creative approaches to a persistent problem: the...

Five professors and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) are jointly pursuing creative approaches to a persistent problem: the severe underrepresentation of women faculty members in Harvard's science departments. They proceed in an atmosphere where it is increasingly recognized that, "throughout the University, it isn't going to be comfortable for women on the faculty until they reach a critical mass," according to Charlotte P. Armstrong '49, LL.B. '53, past president of the Board of Overseers. Particularly in the sciences, "That's what the senior women are raising now as they vent their isolation," says Armstrong, who chaired a committee that reported to the Overseers last spring.

The data themselves are stark: despite nearly tripling in number since 1991, at the beginning of this academic year women held just 11 of 162 tenured positions in natural sciences--6.8 percent--excluding joint appointments. That compared to 14.4 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively, in social sciences and humanities. Of the natural sciences' eight departments and the division of engineering and applied sciences, three units had no tenured women: earth and planetary sciences, mathematics, and the small statistics department.

Harvard is not alone. National Science Foundation data show women holding only one-eighth of full and associate professorships in the natural sciences and engineering at universities and four-year colleges in 1995--and an even smaller share at top research institutions. Dudley R. Herschbach, Baird professor of science, found just six women on the chemistry faculties of the top 25 research universities in 1975 (all of them assistant professors); in 1997, women were 7 percent of the members of those departments--4.6 percent of those with tenure.

Turning to junior-faculty positions, women held 7 of Harvard's 51 appointments in natural sciences--13.7 percent, or more than twice their representation in the tenured ranks. That again lagged well behind social sciences and humanities, with 38.4 percent and 42.1 percent, respectively. Four departments had no junior women: astronomy (which has just tenured Alyssa A. Goodman, Ph.D. '89), chemistry and chemical biology, physics, and statistics.

The disparity between science and other fields in part reflects the number of students pursuing graduate studies and then developing academic careers. For the junior positions, where recent doctorates are the relevant standard of "availability," women currently take about one-quarter of science degrees awarded, versus more than one-third and more than half, respectively, in social sciences and humanities. But in Harvard's science departments, the gap between the proportion of women who are junior professors and available doctorates remains far wider than in the other academic divisions.

The phenomenon is not newly discovered. In 1991, an FAS committee chaired by Barbara J. Grosz, McKay professor of computer science, highlighted the scarcity in the sciences of women graduate students and faculty members. "As senior faculty members," this magazine then reported, "they could play each other in doubles tennis" ("Outnumbered and Underconnected," May-June 1991, page 74). Citing problems as diverse as overt sexism, isolation, and the intersection of an academic career with the logistics of rearing a family, Grosz said then, "We're not talking about moving from 2 percent to 50 percent. We're talking about moving from 2 percent to 15 or 30 percent." Obviously, that hasn't happened.

Concerned about that performance, five professors joined together last summer to urge further action: Grosz, John E. Dowling (molecular and cellular biology), Cynthia M. Friend and Herschbach (chemistry and chemical biology), and Howard Georgi (physics).

They bring considerable intellectual firepower to bear on the issue. Georgi, for example, advanced a "tentative theory of unconscious discrimination against women in science" at a National Academy of Sciences symposium last year. He outlined a culture of "assertiveness and single-mindedness" that arose in an era of male-only science, when those traits were selected as proxies for talents such as curiosity and dedication. He sees the system as "not evil, just misguided," but still difficult to correct. Difficult, he says, but not impossible, if academic searches are broadened and pursued more rigorously.

Herschbach, who has written about the issue for 30 years, examined the data anew for a New York Academy of Sciences symposium last April. While noting the positive effects of more women pursuing graduate studies in the sciences, filling the "pipeline" for future promotion, he cited serious obstacles that have slowed the pace of hiring them into the professoriate: the lengthening term of graduate study, the ticking of the biological clock, and changes in academic funding and hiring.

When the faculty group met with Jeremy R. Knowles, the chemist who has served as FAS dean since 1991, they joined forces to try to push the door open wider. As Knowles told an October meeting of the faculty, Harvard faces "a relatively larger number of retirements in the sciences" than in other divisions over the next five years. That both creates an opportunity and makes recruiting to fill those positions critically important in determining the composition of the faculty over the next generation. Accordingly, he asked the group of five scientists, serving as the Task Force on Faculty Diversity, to "investigate the question of women in the science departments."

That "investigation," spurred by a letter from Knowles to members of each science department, is not supposed to be another in a series of studies dating back to the early 1970s. Rather, the five scientists are scheduled to visit each chairman, offer suggestions on how to identify suitable candidates and improve faculty searches, and share knowledge of especially effective outreach. Although Friend, cochair with Dowling, sees the task force's work as a "long-term project," Knowles charged it with a mission to "catalyze change"--in part by examining the spectrum of issues extending back to women's enrollment in science courses.

Other changes are under way as well. Joan M. Hutchins '61, current president of the Overseers, points out the need to give junior scientists time to pursue their research, even as they are stretched thin by committee work and advising students who seek out women as mentors. "It's an area of great importance to me," she says, "having been a math major at Radcliffe, where I was the only female in my classes and had no women teachers." She hopes the new Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study will give women scientists the opportunity to hone and showcase their scholarship so they can compete for tenure more effectively. Given pending retirements and planned growth in the engineering and other departments, Hutchins calls herself "optimistic" about women's prospects in science at Harvard.

Will these steps suffice? FAS's process for identifying candidates for tenure emphasizes senior scholars of proven accomplishment. As Friend told a reporter for Science, which on November 12 ran a long article on the status of women scientists at Harvard and MIT, "competition is high for senior women candidates, and they are often not as mobile." She also observed the difficulties with the "reflecting pool method of hiring--which means you have a bunch of faculty who see themselves and that's who they hire." Now, the challenge is to enlarge the pool and widen the angle of vision.  

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