Women in Science on "Women in Science"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — December 21, 2006

There was lots I wanted to say after reading “Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches,” Cornelia Dean’s story in The New York Times, but then I figured it would be more useful to hear what women in science are saying. So here are some excerpts — please click through to read the full posts.

The search brought many excellent science blogs to my attention. I’ll add more sites to the blogroll soon.

Melis ’08, a pre-med student at MIT:

[Here’s] what really intrigued me (referring to a speech by Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University):

The importance of mentors is another theme that runs through these sessions. In her keynote speech at the Rice conference, Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Davis, mentioned several occasions when timely intervention from a thesis adviser, department chairman or other mentor turned things around for her.

Joan Steitz, a professor of molecular biophysics at Yale and a member of the academy’s expert panel, said the same thing in one of the Harvard lectures this month. It is crucial to have “someone up your sleeve who will save you,” Dr. Steitz said.
If mentors don’t present themselves, women may have to create them, Dr. Steitz said.

This issue of mentorship is one that MIT is particularly good at addressing. I think it’s extremely important for there to be female professors to serve as mentors. Luckily, I have more role-models than I can shake a stick at. My professors have found a way to solve the “two body problem,” which is explained in the article as the challenge of balancing work with family, and thus I have confidence that I can do the same. Admittedly, I would have far less faith in my ability to “do-it-all” if it was not for these brilliant examples of success.

Female Science Professor, a professor at a large research research university:

One engine driving the frequency of news coverage of the topic is the frequency of conferences and reports about the issue. Let’s keep those coming and keep the topic in the face, if not the collective mind, of administrators, legislators, and others with the power to change things.

The part of the article that resonated with me was about how women are perceived:

Because people judge others in terms of these unconscious prejudices, she said, the same behavior that would suggest a man is collaborative, judicious or flexible would mark a woman as needy, timid or flighty.

And because science is still widely viewed as “a male arena,” she said, a woman who succeeds may be viewed as “selfish, manipulative, bitter, untrustworthy, conniving and cold.”

So true. Men who collaborate are open-minded and generous. Women who collaborate do so out of weakness because they are not capable of conducting research independently.

Tara Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology:

After the discussion here and elsewhere in yonder blogosphere about women and stereotyping, Cornelia Dean in the New York Times writes about recent meeting aimed at helping women advance in science, where bias still rages.

This fall, female scientists at Rice University here gathered promising women who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to help them learn skills that they will need to deal with the perils of job hunting, promotion and tenure in high-stakes academic science.

“The reality is there are barriers that women face,” said Kathleen S. Matthews, the dean of natural sciences at Rice, who spoke at the meeting’s opening dinner. “There are circles and communities of engagement where women are by and large not included.”

Instead, they talk about what they have to know and do to get ahead. They talk about unspoken, even unconscious sexism that means they must be better than men to be thought as good — that they must, as one Rice participant put it, literally and figuratively wear a suit and heels, while men can relax in jeans.

They muse on the importance of mentoring and other professional support and talk about ways women can provide it for each other if they do not receive it from their professors or advisers.

And they obsess about what they call “the two body problem,” the extreme difficulty of reconciling a demanding career in science with marriage and a family — especially, as is more often the case for women than men in science, when the spouse also has scientific ambitions.

I discussed some of these statistics previously here, and the latter stat is one that really stood out for me: just how many women versus men who have to deal with having a spouse in an academic or other demanding careers (or who are employed full-time, period).

Be sure to click through on Tara’s links to previous posts; lots of good data there.

Annalee Newitz, co-editor of the new book “She’s Such a Geek,” a collection of essays by women about science and technology, doesn’t go into great detail about the NYT article, but it inspired these comments:

I’m declaring 2007 the year of women in science. In the wake of Larry Summers’ ass-minded comments at Harvard two years ago, several academic institutions have put the spotlight on women in science and engineering. We’ve started to see the results of that over the past few months. A National Academy of Science study called “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” came out in September and both Columbia and Harvard have been sponsoring conferences and lectures on women in science.

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