Women in Science

Women Are Moving Boundaries of Science

Monday, October 23, 2000

Women researchers say current science attracts and rewards those who value distance and autonomy, virtues often thought of as male. But women and insist their scientific work be relevant, and, like Nobel prize-winners, prefer teamwork.

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Sue Vilhauser Rosser

In 1979, Angela Ginorio had just received her doctorate in psychology. Donna Hughes was a young biologist just beginning to make her way in the world of basic research. Both were warned off any involvement with the women's movement, if they wanted to have a strong career.

Twenty years later, Ginorio teaches a course in "Women and Science" at the University of Washington. Ginorio always asks the young scientists in her classes, "Does your adviser know you're taking this course?" The answer is a uniform "no."

Donna Hughes, the geneticist warned off feminism in the 1980s, has since received a $450,000 grant from federal and state sources to promote women in science at the undergraduate level.

The scientific establishment, both agree, is still afraid of feminism--even as, slowly but surely, it is being transformed by it.

Too slowly, says Sue Vilhauser Rosser, editor of "Building Inclusive Science," a recent special issue of Women's Studies Quarterly. The 25 essays in the journal is the result of the ongoing transformation of the profession from an exclusive male-only club.

Contributors are from a broad range of disciplines--bioethics, physics, biology, computer science, engineering and more. The teachers, scholars, researchers and practitioners present the history of women and science, report on the sometimes uneasy participation of women in scientific fields and offer new models for continuing progress in bringing women and science together.

Women Just 23 Percent of Ph.D. Scientists, Engineers

The most recent figures from the National Science Foundation provide a snapshot of women's growing participation in science and engineering. Women were 23 percent of scientists and engineers with doctorates in the United States in 1997, up from 8.7 percent in 1973.

In the past 25 years, then, women's participation in science and engineering, while still low, has tripled. It's less impressive, however, given that women are now 50 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. Also, according to the National Science Foundation, "Women were more than half of social scientists, but only 22 percent of physical scientists and 9 percent of engineers."

Salary figures reflect the same disparity. Women made $47,000 to men's $58,000 in median annual salary. In social and life sciences, including the largest proportion of women scientists, there was a 24 percent salary difference, according to the Foundation's bi-annual publication, "Science and Engineering 2000." In other words, there's a long road ahead.

Women Want Their Professional Work to Make Positive Contributions

While some of the salary inequity, in particular, can be traced to women's more recent arrival in the science and engineering workforce, much of the remaining barriers to equity can be traced to a simple factor, experts say: women's insistence that their professional work has positive meaning in a social or family context.

In 1998, for example, Vilhauser Rosser and collaborators asked young male and female neurobiologists what they hoped to accomplish in their scientific careers. Men's responses were abstract: "I would hope to have furthered knowledge in my field." Women, on the other hand, said: "I can provide medical care to others, and a multitude of people can be helped through research."

Women Engineers Solve Problems Faster for Social Benefits

Such differences are not limited to neurobiology. British researcher Jan Harding, editor of Perspectives on Gender and Science (Falmer Press, 1986), found that among engineering students, women would solve a problem much faster "if they were told that solving a particular problem would help design prostheses for elderly patients," said Vilhauser Rosser. "For male students it (the social benefits) didn't matter."

In addition, women, for the most part, keep their scientific work in the context of the rest of their lives. According to the National Science Foundation, women were more likely to be employed irregularly, due to "family-related reasons, such as the demands of a spouse's job or the presence of children."

Vilhauser Rosser said that in her current survey of top women scientists, "when I ask their number-one concern, across the board, it's balancing career and family."

These different perspectives, combined with careers that aren't as linear as those of male scientists, can make a difference in hiring decisions, tenure decisions, granting decisions--which are still largely controlled by male-dominated committees, particularly in the physical sciences.

"You'll have committees trying to find someone for a spot," said Ginorio, "and they're having a hard time filling out the team--then someone will suggest a woman, and they're surprised. They just don't think of it."

Heart Disease Research Improved When Women Changed Protocols

Vilhauser Rosser notes concrete progress in biological sciences. "For example, women were long excluded from research on heart disease--too many fears about the effect of drugs on pregnancy, and so forth. As a result, women weren't getting the benefits of new procedures like angioplasty, while no one could figure out why men were dying of heart disease at 10 times the rate for women." Finally, as more women entered the field, she said, protocols were widened.

"We learned that estrogen seems to have a protective effect--that women get heart disease about 10 years later, and that it then interacts with other chronic ailments. We've ended up with a whole new model of cardiovascular disease, one that helps everyone."

Contributors to "Building Inclusive Science" are sending out a call to make the scientific workplace more female-friendly. Others are developing integrated science curricula that incorporate more ways women tend to excel.

"The kinds of people attracted to science as it's now done are the ones who value distance and autonomy," comments Vilhauser Rosser, "but the future is in teamwork. After all, in the past decade, we've seen that teamwork is what wins Nobel Prizes.

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York.

 
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