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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Field of science must embrace equality

Anne E. Preston Knight Ridder

At a recent meeting of social scientists exploring the dearth of women and minorities in the sciences, Harvard President Lawrence Summers posed the provocative question: Do biological differences equip fewer women than men with the necessary high-level mathematical skills to succeed in these fields? In response to swift and widespread criticism, he has since issued a formal apology. Unfortunately, the shadow of the doubt he raised persists.

At a time when large numbers of highly qualified women are not encouraged to study science and numerous others who have scaled the daunting and arduous hurdles required to enter the disciplines are being driven out, this question is a dangerous red herring. Indeed, the question itself distracts policy-makers from the real problems facing women in science: the biological and physical sciences have been developed by men, for men, and the result is a field that alienates women.

First there is the career structure. At the doctoral level, success in science requires constant geographic relocation from the undergraduate to the graduate institution, onto post doc and then the first job. Continuous movement during the period when most young people are starting families puts female scientists at a distinct disadvantage since, in comparison to their male peers, they are more likely to marry established professional spouses who are least mobile just when they need to be most mobile for their wives. Women are then faced with the no-win choice: compromising either their careers or their marriages.

Second, women are shut out by their peers. Scientific networks often exclude women. As my research has shown, men in graduate science programs are much more likely than women to be mentored by senior scientists. Yet while the mentoring of male students has been shown to have little effect on a man’s graduation rate, it increases the probability of graduation for women by large and significant amounts.

Third, women are put off by the work itself. Once out of school, women often lose their passion for work that is overly narrow and unconnected to personal, social or political issues. The academy’s lip service to the value of multi-disciplinary research gives way to the difficulty in pursuing and evaluating work done outside of the disciplines’ traditional boundaries. Women also become frustrated with confining work roles that have few if any pathways to increased responsibility. They become embittered as they are passed over for promotions as their male peers step seamlessly into positions of power.

There are ways to make science more hospitable to women. Dramatic improvements in transportation and communication over the last 40 years should, for example, make much geographical relocation unnecessary. And, while the long hours expected of junior faculty in research universities may be an important signal of post-tenure productivity, they are more difficult for mothers than fathers because, even in this highly educated population, women take on more than two-thirds of the burden of raising children.

In the 21st century, the day-to-day juggling of children and science is a distraction that few men ever face. If we are unwilling to restructure the hours spent at the workplace, we can at least begin to make greater strides toward sharing responsibility in the home.

Constantly fighting the stereotype most recently articulated by Summers that they are not as scientifically gifted as their male peers, women feel that they have to work twice as hard to prove their worth in a field that continues to over-value male contribution. They often hide pregnancies as long as possible, take minimal maternity leaves, and continue to work long hours after child birth even when generous maternity leaves and tenure clock stoppages are available. They feel compelled to fight the subtle discrimination of senior, and not so senior, scientists who believe that science and mothering do not mix.

Until these fields become more welcoming to family formation and family responsibilities, embrace work that crosses disciplines, offer career paths with broadening responsibilities to all, and evenhandedly welcome, mentor and value all entrants – until there is true equal opportunity – we should table the question of differential ability. Of course, at that point I trust we will consider such a question so archaic as to be laughed off the agenda.

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