Tremendous Strides, But Difficulties Remain

Stuck in the Middle | Human Resource Executive Online The following excerpt was reprinted from Nobel Prize Women in Science© 2006 by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, with permission from the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academies Press in Washington.

Monday, December 1, 2008
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Are women scientists still hiding under furniture and working without pay? No. By and large, overt discrimination has disappeared.

As Mildred S. Dresselhaus, former president of the American Physical Society, observed, "We've made tremendous strides in the last generation. Between the time that Rosalyn Yalow got started to the time I got started in science, there was already a huge, enormous improvement. And from my time to the present is another enormous improvement. But we're still quite a ways from equal opportunity."

Women scientists still do not get promoted as fast as their male counterparts, agrees Marsha Matyas of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Nevertheless, women fare much better in science than women in other occupations, she emphasizes. Their unemployment rates are lower, their salaries higher, and their working hours more flexible.

Furthermore, unlike law and medical students, science graduate students do not pay tuition. They are paid salaries while they study.

Today, women, minorities, and the handicapped are recognized as a large, untapped resource of scientific talent that could help solve the nation's shortage of scientific and technological personnel.

Are women racing into science? Yes and no. The number of women earning science degrees rose steadily between the 1960s and the late 1980s. Then it stopped growing. Why?

Women's preparation for science remains poor. Teachers and textbooks still downplay the scientific accomplishments of women. Marie Curie remains the only woman scientist mentioned in many classes. Parents and teachers widely believe outdated statistics that purported to show girls as innately unable to learn mathematics as well as boys.

That evidence is now known to be either inaccurate or nonexistent. More girls are now completing advanced algebra classes than boys, although fewer high school girls study calculus.

In countries like France, where all college-preparatory students -- male or female -- are required to take mathematics and physics, the percentage of women scientists is higher. Their schools keep doors open for young men and women to enter science-based careers; more than half of all college majors require calculus.

Also in France, 35 percent of the physicists who earn advanced doctoral degrees are women. In comparison, a mere seven percent of employed American physicists and astronomers are women.

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Only about 14 percent of all bachelor's degrees in engineering go to women in the United States; and fewer women earned degrees in engineering in 1990 than in 1984.

What is the biggest problem? One of them is certainly the fact that women are primarily responsible for bearing and raising children.

For Marie Curie as for Maria Goeppert Mayer as for Jocelyn Bell Burnell, combining a scientific career and raising children is difficult. Science moves fast, and women who take time off for childrearing may need major retraining.

Stephen G. Brush, professor of the history of science at the University of Maryland, summarized the problem in American Scientist: "By the time a woman lands an assistant professorship, she is likely to be in her late 20s or early 30s. She then has five or six years to turn out enough first-rate publications to gain tenure. If she has children, she must fulfill her family obligations while competing against other scientists who work at least 60 hours a week. If she postpones childbearing, the biological clock will run out at about the same time as the tenure clock."

So far, no one -- not universities, private industry, government or the public at large -- has solved the problem that nature gave to women scientists. Capable as they are, they will probably solve it themselves -- as their intellectual progenitors did before them.

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