Women in Science Redux

Since the summer of 1999, members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and its dean, Jeremy R. Knowles, have sought to increase the number...

Since the summer of 1999, members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and its dean, Jeremy R. Knowles, have sought to increase the number of women who hold professorships in the natural sciences (see "Women in the Sciences," January-February 2000, page 66). In his January 2000 letter to FAS colleagues, Knowles wrote, "our current position is not strong ....[T]here are only two women among the thirty-six assistant professors in the Natural Sciences. How can we improve the situation? My sense is that mere decanal exhortation is not enough...." Developments since then, when Knowles endorsed the efforts of an ad hoc committee of five professors to effect change, suggest deeper understanding of the problem--and, from the Medical School, another approach to overcoming it.

The committee--two of the University's 12 tenured science-faculty women, Richards professor of chemistry Cynthia Friend and McKay professor of computer science Barbara Grosz, plus Cabot professor of the natural sciences John Dowling, Mallinckrodt professor of physics Howard Georgi, and Baird professor of science Dudley Herschbach--is impelled by at least two factors. First, the underrepresentation of women in the sciences has long been
evident--and may be self-fulfilling by discouraging female students from pursuing the field. Second, the demographics suggest a unique opportunity.

Knowles wrote about an impending wave of faculty retirements. "If we let this opportunity pass us by," says Friend, "it will be another 30 years before we have the chance to change the face of Harvard's science departments." Herschbach points out, "Statistics show that while 85 percent of professors in the humanities retire at age 70, only 40 percent of tenured scientists retire at the same age. Harvard doesn't offer any 'golden parachute' retirement plans, and scientists are a healthy lot, ensconced in their labs and wary of giving up their research. The perception now is that if Harvard doesn't add more women to its faculty, it won't be able to compete with other universities" over time because it will miss out on some of science's brightest minds. Several committee members referred to an instance in which a stellar young female candidate passed up a tenure offer from Harvard in favor of a post with more women colleagues.

Committee members have identified several bottlenecks in the journey from graduate student to assistant, and then full, professor. A commonly cited problem is the extended post-doctoral period in some fields (see page 67), in which young scientists may hold one or more positions before they are considered for a tenured professorship. With doctoral research, writing, and teaching responsibilities extending the average duration of a scientific Ph.D. as long as six years, it is difficult for women to begin a family and sustain academic work, particularly if that work has no promise of a stable, permanent position in sight.

The isolation in which women scientists may find themselves, especially at the senior level, is a further source of concern. Grosz notes, "One difficulty with lab sciences is that they are organized around an individual's lab. It is problematic to be the only woman in a group, a lab, a class, or a tenured position. If we can't avoid these isolating situations, we need to ensure that women scientists in different fields meet each other to counterbalance this fact."

Dowling says the scientific enterprise is "structured to favor men." By excluding opportunities for collaboration, he believes, academic science's coronation of only one principal investigator per project sends more women scientists in the direction of industry, where collaborative group work is at the center of most successful patented projects.

The committee's findings do not exist in a vacuum. A 1999 report on the status of women at MIT revealed unsettling gender inequalities: women scientists were allotted less lab space, were promoted at a slower rate, and were paid less for their research and teaching than male counterparts. In January, MIT president Charles M. Vest and the women faculty members responsible for the initial study hosted a daylong conference to foster nationwide discussion of the issues MIT has raised about the equitable treatment of women faculty in the sciences and engineering. Leaders from eight other leading research universities attended: the presidents of the California Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Yale; the chancellor of Berkeley; and the provosts of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Afterward the leaders acknowledged in a public statement that "barriers still exist" for women faculty, and asserted, "Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available." Noting that this challenge would require significant review of, and potentially significant change in, procedures within each university, they agreed to reconvene in about a year to share specific initiatives undertaken to achieve their goal.

The pervasiveness of the problem suggests a need to redefine the ways in which universities attract and could sustain a higher percentage of women scientists on both graduate and post-doctoral levels. The committee maintains that until there are more women scientists in the upper ranks of their fields, the "pipeline" of undergraduate and graduate women scientists will remain leaky. "The underlying issue," says Friend, "is the problem of not having more women in the powerful, decision-making positions. We need to make sure that there is a higher representation of women faculty in positions where resource distribution and policy are determined." But these changes have yet to take place. "Our biggest success so far," says Dowling, "has simply been raising consciousness." The group's ideas and efforts have focused primarily on highlighting each department's need to find more creative, direct approaches to hiring women.

"Science departments need to be proactive and track stellar female students," insists Grosz. "Departments can no longer be reactive and assume they'll receive applications from the best female, or for that matter male, candidates. Chairs need to do some soul-searching as to why women scientists aren't identified in a more complete fashion." Dowling encourages search committees to draw up separate lists of eligible female candidates whenever a position is available; research has shown that when department chairs are asked to make a list of 'simply' the best candidates, they nominate only men. In keeping with Grosz's proactive stance, Dowling says, "We need to ask these women, 'What would it take to bring you to Harvard?' and to try and accommodate their demands. This may mean that Harvard has to change its attitude towards hiring spouses and begin to consider incorporating the scientist's spouse in the final equation." (UCLA and the University of Kansas, Friend notes, have successfully made provisions to hire spouses, thereby boosting female faculty numbers and attracting excellent male faculty at the same time.)

"It's still an old boys' network," notes Dudley Herschbach. "While coeducation has been extremely successful on the undergraduate level, the older generation of professors began their studies or teaching when Lamont Library was only for boys, housing was single-sex, and when there were few, if any, women's faces in their classes. These ingrained perceptions are hard to reverse." How then, to reverse them? "We need to expand recruiting efforts to target and retain women professors, as is already done for men," says Friend. "We can enhance the career path for women scientists in the same way we already do for men--by institutionalizing a coaching program where young scientists are given career advice and opportunities by more experienced scientists."

Friend's case serves to show the ways in which the status of women professors at Harvard has, and has not, improved since she joined the faculty 19 years ago. She was scheduled to begin teaching the largest undergraduate introductory chemistry class in the same month her son was due to be born. At the time, Harvard had no provision for maternity leave nor would she have thought to ask for any special treatment. However, her son arrived one month early, so she was able to begin her lectures as scheduled. (Harvard now provides full leave for the primary caregiving parent.)

Friend notes that when she was hired there was one other, untenured, woman professor in the chemistry department. "I assumed that the status of women would get better over time," she says. "In this aspect, Harvard has done worse, since I remain the only female faculty member, at any level, in the department. We need to raise the number of women faculty so that it matches the actual percentages of women receiving doctoral degrees in the sciences."


Other schools in the University are exploring other strategies to enhance women's prospects for careers in academic science. At Harvard Medical School (HMS), the Fiftieth Anniversary Program for Scholars in Medicine strives to support junior medical faculty women at a crucial point in their academic careers and family responsibilities, and thus gradually to broaden the pool of candidates for academic appointment. The fellowships began in 1995 in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Medical School's first class of women. (In 2000, women made up more than half of the graduating class, and 10.4 percent of the faculty.)

Where the FAS committee's sights remain trained on the University's highest ranks, the HMS fellowship program focuses on individuals (almost exclusively women) at an earlier stage in their career trajectory. "We lose too many women along the way in medicine's pipeline," says Eleanor Shore, HMS dean of faculty affairs. "The junior faculty appointment is an essential turning point in an individual's academic career--these women need to teach, research, compete for grants, publish, perhaps practice in a clinic, while balancing other important responsibilities such as raising a family or caring for aging parents." Shore's initial goal was to fund five one-year fellowships, rewarding $25,000 to each recipient. Instead, with support from participating Boston-area hospitals and local philanthropists, the school will be able to offer 36 fellowships for the coming academic year.

Fellowship money funds a diverse group of junior faculty, a wide range of projects, and a variety of personal situations. Fellowship recipients Laurie Comstock and Mary Elizabeth Patti, of the Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Joslin Diabetes Center respectively, are both mothers of young twins and have spouses in medicine. "I've never felt like a woman in science," Comstock says, "Just a scientist. However, I'm gratefully aware that Dean Shore and the other women who entered medicine before me have ensured that the obstacles that may have stood in the way of their careers don't stand in the way of mine."

Patti's office is wallpapered with pictures of happy children covered in flour, the birth announcements of her three children, and ultrasounds of babies in utero. "This fellowship helped me to emerge from my mentor's lab and to direct my own project. Now the challenge is trying to balance all the facets of my life," she says, gesturing to the PowerPoint presentation on her computer screen that explains the links between obesity and diabetes, and the pictures of her children and husband taped up alongside it. "Society needs to value raising good kids as much as it does doing good research. No one leaves research and comes back successfully--at least, not right now. I want to be a good mother and a good doctor and scientist. The Fiftieth Anniversary Fellowship acknowledges the difficulty and importance of trying to do both."

With diverse fellows, the program--as intended--supports different kinds of medicine-related careers, not just "bench" science. Anne Beale, recipient of a Golden Family Fellowship, wears many hats: she is author of the book Black Parenting, a junior faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital, the associate director of the hospital's multicultural-affairs office, and a columnist for Essence magazine. "As a woman and person of color, my priority is to research issues important to my gender and ethnic background," says Beale. "This research is often done outside the lab, in the community. What good is affirmative action if minorities do the same research projects as everyone else?" Much of Beale's work influences her parenting column in Essence, yet colleagues have discouraged her from including the magazine work on her résumé, warning that because it is not for an academic, peer-reviewed journal, it will never help her win a promotion.

Though the medical-school fellowships and the FAS committee pursue two different solutions to a common problem, their underlying goals are the same. Both seek to encourage creative thinking so that the traditional outsider is welcomed on the inside--whether by tenuring promising academics at a younger age and providing for their spouses as well, increasing mentorship programs and collaborative group projects, or directly funding a vulnerable population. All strive to ensure that the percentages of women entering the field are reflected in medicine and science's top ranks.

~Sara Houghteling

Read more articles by: Sara Houghteling

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