Women in Science, and at Harvard

"A recent study found that women [at highly selective colleges] switched from science majors to non-science majors at a rate of...54 percent compared to...39 percent for men. This 'leaky pipeline' continues to leak throughout graduate school and postdoctoral work." ~ National Symposium on the Advancement of Women in Science

Against this backdrop, the undergraduate group Women in Science at Harvard and Radcliffe (WISHR) planned and carried out the first annual National Symposium on the Advancement of Women in Science. The April conference drew local and visiting undergraduate and graduate students; alumnae; and more than two dozen prominent speakers from universities, industry, and the government.

Part background briefing, part strategy session, part pep rally, the conference aimed, in the words of WISHR president Elizabeth D. Chao '01, to offer "inspiration and encouragement from...successful women scientists" to help attendees develop their "own vision and leadership in [their] research and academic endeavors." (For a faculty perspective, see "Women in the Sciences," January-February, page 66.)

Opportunities are out there, speakers agreed. "There's never been a better time to go into science," declared molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins '64, Ph.D. '71, the MIT professor whose initiative prompted a five-year study that documented subtle gender bias in the treatment of tenured women at that institution. The playing field in the sciences isn't "entirely level yet," she acknowledged, "but that is just as true for most other lines of work."

Master survival tactics as well as scientific techniques, counseled Martha Gray, Taplin professor of medical and electrical engineering at MIT and co-director of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Sciences, and Technology. She compared doing science to skating. Joining the faculty is like joining a skating team and discovering that there is internal competition; that some of your moves may appear in your coach's routine; and that the team sport is not ice dancing but hockey--which involves some grace, but also brutality that many teammates consider "just part of the game." If you really want to do the science, said Gray, "you can't just refuse to play."

Hopkins and Gray spoke about difficulties women scientists may face if they choose an academic career--but universities today carry out only 15 to 20 percent of the scientific research done in this country, noted Rodney Nichols, president and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences. Women are doing well in private sector research and development, he reported, and succeeding as entrepreneurs as well.

Be aware of myths that don't tell the whole truth, warned Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi. Believing there is only one right way to be brilliant or advance in science is one myth. That science is a meritocracy is another. "It's not that simple," he asserted. In fact, reported biochemist Helen C. Davies, national president of the Association for Women in Science, one Swedish study discovered that women scientists had to be roughly 2.2 times more productive than their male counterparts to obtain grants.

Above all, speakers emphasized, you can't do it alone. Mentoring and collaboration promote good science and combat marginalization. The WISHR members who spoke at the end of the conference created by their teamwork made it clear they had learned that lesson. Science educator and feminist Sheila Tobias '57 thanked them warmly. "We predicted in the 1960s, if barriers to the scientific education of women fall, women will come," she told the students. "And here you are."

A week later, former biology concentrator Ruth Hubbard '44 recalled how a male Harvard teaching fellow told her, "You shouldn't go to graduate school at a place that doesn't hire women."

Hubbard stayed at Harvard anyway. She earned a Ph.D. in 1950, was named professor of biology in 1974, and is now professor emerita. She told her story to the audience gathered to consider "History and Memory: Gender at Harvard and Radcliffe," a daylong event meant to follow up the November 1998 conference "Gender at the Gates: New Perspectives on Harvard and Radcliffe History" (see "Inclusivity," January-February 1999, page 64).

During that interval, Radcliffe College became the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and part of Harvard. The transformation caused some alumnae to express "dismay and anger" about "being invisible not just to Harvard, but to a new generation" of students unaware of the accomplishments and hard-won progress of women at the University, noted Phillips professor of early American history Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her opening remarks. The new conference, Ulrich promised, would provide new stories to balance Harvard's seemingly womanless history.

Hubbard's was one. Seniors Gloria Bruce and Andrew Mandel, drawing on their thesis research, provided others as they sketched an historical pattern of independence versus integration in Harvard-Radcliffe relations. Bruce described how drama and team sports flourished at Radcliffe a century ago--freeing women students to write, act, build sets, and compete physically; enabling administrators to boast of their well-rounded and healthy students; and creating in the process an empowering school spirit that made Radcliffe more than a mere annex of Harvard. Mandel spoke of the 1950s, when most Radcliffe students saw greater benefit in merging their extracurricular activities with Harvard's, as happened in 1957.

Journalist Linda Greenhouse '68 highlighted the pros and cons of that change in the absence of further adjustments when she recalled eating alone at the Crimson, unable to join her male colleagues in the Adams House dining room. Other male and female speakers, undergraduate and graduate, criticized Harvard's mixed messages in general, citing particular flaws such as the paucity of women faculty members. Sameera Fazili '00, winner of the Harvard College Women's Leadership Award, noted that unequal access to opportunities at Harvard is not only a gender issue and described the difficulties faced by Muslim students in their efforts to obtain a suitable space near Harvard Yard for their daily prayers.

Progress has been slow, acknowledged historian Marcia Synnott '61, but her statistics showed that Harvard has evolved into a more meritocratic and diverse institution since World War II. Because there is "strength in history and memory," said Peggy Lim '01, cochair of the College-sponsored Women's Leadership Project, that group is working on a narrative about women at the University, to provide present and future Harvard women with "a sense of history and a sense of place."

Biochemistry concentrator Lavanya Kondapalli '02, WISHR's incoming president, showed that she had that awareness already. She described walking down the hall to the Bio Labs library past photographs of science faculty members--all of them male. "Then I see Dr. Hubbard's picture," Kondapalli said, "and she's one of the reasons I'm doing science at Harvard."

 

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