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Challenges for women in the sciences.
Field Report, Kay Steiger, University of Minnesota, Apr. 9, 2007
Challenges for women in the sciences.
Third in a three-part series.
By Kay Steiger, University of Minnesota
Judith taught organic chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley and told some of her close friends that she suspected male members of her department were being paid substantially more than she was, despite her seniority of 10 years. When she examined public records, the gap proved even steeper than she initially thought. As author Ellen Daniell retells in Every Other Thursday, a book about women in science, “The discrepancy had been initiated at the time she was hired, and the salary gap had widened over the subsequent fifteen years. She wrongly assumed that administrative oversight of salaries and pay scales assured equality.” This all happened during a period where Judith was awarded several honors for her work, including her election to the National Academy of Sciences.
Judith’s story isn’t unique (Daniell kept her last name confidential to protect her privacy). The professional sciences continue to be overwhelmingly male. According to the National Science Foundation, women made up 40 percent of science and engineering graduate students in 2004 and earned 44 percent of science and engineering graduate degrees. But women make up less than 30 percent of science and engineering faculty at research universities. Women are just 7.6 percent of tenured professors in chemistry and 14.8 of tenured professors in the biological sciences, according to a 2004 study.
Although tenure itself has been under fire lately, the consensus is that tenure is generally good for the purposes of academic freedom, but the process of achieving it is often full of bias against less traditional academics, including women, people of color, and those focused on interdisciplinary research.
Mary Ann Mason is dean of the graduate division at Berkeley and has done some research about why women don’t show up in the faculty ranks at universities despite the fact that they have gained parity in graduate programs.
As reported in UCBerkleyNews, Mason’s research shows that upon beginning a Ph.D. program, 46 percent of female students reported wanting to pursue a career at a research university and about 27 percent preferred a teaching university. “But after the first year of doctoral studies, many had changed their minds: Only 31 percent of women remained interested in a research career.” Mason attributes this change to the tough demands of a research career in the physical sciences. Women in academia with children report putting in more than 100 hours of combined work and family activities a week, 10 hours more than their male counterparts.
Women in science research face a special set of challenges. Often, faculty members up for tenure are judged first and foremost by the sheer number of studies they’ve published. “Most successful women have a different publishing pattern; [they] may be less aggressive—not as ego-driven. Women tend to publish fewer, more complete scientific papers,” said Phoebe Leboy, president-elect of the Association for Women in Science and a professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. “Most of the discrimination is inadvertent. People don’t realize the assumptions they’re making.”
One particularly unique challenge is the pressure of what is known as soft-money funding. This means that each scientist must apply for grants to fund not only research, but also often portions of his or her own salary. This is particularly difficult for women, on whom a greater proportion of child-rearing responsibilities fall. Not only must a tenure-track candidate continue to keep up with research, she must also pour work into grant applications. Many research universities are switching to this model for the hard sciences.
“The average grant to a women is only 80 percent of the average awarded to men,” Leboy told Campus Progress. “That’s been true for over 10 years. If women’s success is going to be measured by how many grants they have, women are automatically in trouble.”
There are grants available expressly for young female scientists, and programs like the Association for Women in Science and the Association for University Women have branches and outreach programs for young women considering a career in the sciences at universities across the country.
As Daniell recounts in Every Other Thursday, her own rejection from tenure was devastating. “I was unable to cry for several days. I felt numb … this formal, civilized statement summarized a discount of six years’ hard work and accomplishment.” She attributes her ability to get through this time to the support she found among her Thursday women’s mentorship group.
Leboy, who was briefly a member of the group, said, “You had a group of people that you could openly discuss these issues without feeling like you were constantly complaining. It was understood that you weren’t just complaining, you really wanted feedback on how to deal with these problems.”
Francis Hoffmann, dean of the faculty at Connecticut College said, “Underrepresented groups have demanded a different model of mentoring. … Everyone benefits from a senior person helping you putting people in touch with you. It’s easier to do that with people who are like you.”
Some institutions, like Ohio State University and Wellesley College in addition to the University of California, have instituted the option of a “half-time tenure track” for primary caregivers. It will take longer for a half-time professor to achieve tenure, but they can avoid working unreasonable hours and still produce high-quality scientific research.
The Association for Women in Science Educational Foundation offers female-specific scholarships and fellowships to encourage young women scientists. Most campuses also have peer groups that offer mentorship, such as chapters of Women in Science and Engineering.
And much like the regular tenure process, women in the hard sciences would benefit from increased transparency and clear standards for tenure, as recommended in a report released by Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado.
At U.C. Berkeley, Judith encountered pay discrepancies and Daniell was denied tenure altogether. The good news for their younger colleagues is that the university has instituted new family-friendly policies. Female faculty members and graduate students can now take up to six weeks of paid maternity leave, and the children of grad students are eligible to enroll in the university’s childcare program. Although universities have a long way to go to close the gap for women in the sciences, this is a step in the right direction.
See part two of the series: How the tenure process discriminates against female professors.
See part one of the series: Why the new female president at Harvard is an exception to the rule.
Kay Steiger is the editorial assistant at The American Prospect. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in May 2006.