Donna Nelson

(WOMENSENEWS)–Lawrence Summers’ controversial comments regarding women and science blasted the Harvard president into the role of gender-justice enemy
No. 1 and renewed interest in the under-representation on campuses of women in science.

While Summers’ suggestion last month that men may be naturally better than women at math and science was made during an off-the-record conference, he gained international attention after one female academic stormed out of the room and others voiced protest and disappointment. In the weeks following the conference, Summers has been chastised by some feminist organizations and the National Organization for Women called for his resignation.

Summers has said that his comments were intentionally provocative. Yet some, while disagreeing with his statements, saw a major opportunity in the ensuing maelstrom of opinion, outrage and debate.

“Lawrence Summers’ comments have a silver lining,” says Sharon Levin, founder and executive director of Women’s Prerogative, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “People are now paying attention to this issue.”

Levin says that the low numbers of female professional scientists has been slowly gaining attention, spurred most recently last July when the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that government agencies are not doing enough to ensure that federal grant recipients do not discriminate against women in mathematics, engineering and science.

But that wave of interest was nothing like the past few weeks, she says. “Every day I open the paper and there’s something on it. I just think that’s phenomenal that people are taking the issue seriously.”

The Boston Globe has reported that at Harvard, the percentage of women offered tenured jobs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has declined each year since Summers became president in 2001. In the last academic year, only 4 of 32 such offers were extended to women.

Part of National Pattern

Levin is anxious to look beyond Harvard to a national pattern. That was, after all, why Women’s Prerogative teamed up with the National Women’s Law Center, another Washington group, to launch a Web site last November, Women in the Sciences: Left Out, Left Behind. The volume of visitors to the site tripled in the two and a half weeks after Summers’ comments, according to Web-traffic reports.

The site provides data on 136 U.S. universities, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Mass., to Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and students and faculty members can assess for themselves whether women are under-representated in their science departments.

A student from Texas A and M University can quickly find out that of the 40 professors in their school’s physics department, only one is a woman. At rival University of Texas the ratio is even worse: 1 female physics professor out of 49.

Tool for Activism

Sponsors designed the site to serve and spur activism on the issue. With the click of the mouse, visitors can send a customized letter to their universities or government representatives (e-mail addresses provided) and “urge them to do better.” Flyers about women in science and suggested text for letters to editors are ready for downloading. Other suggestions–such as inviting speakers to campus to discuss the issue–abound.

“The site can be a useful vehicle for members of university communities to raise the profile of the issue,” says Jocelyn Samuels, director and vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center. “Members of each university community can bring home to their community how this general problem translates into disparities on their campuses.”

The site makes available data compiled by Dr. Donna Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. Last year Nelson released the first comprehensive national analysis of college faculty positions held by females and minority males at the nation’s top 50 math, science and engineering departments. The report found that between 3 percent and 15 percent of full professors at top engineering and science departments are women.

First Complete Count

Nelson is not the first person to count women in the sciences, but she says the comprehensiveness of her study makes it unique. Nelson explains that while many other studies (including the government’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty) are based on samples, her data is by complete populations.

“That means that if we say there are no black assistant professors, we know there isn’t one department who just didn’t respond. We were able to prove that the numbers were actually that small,” she says.

The data in Nelson’s study is broken out, or “disaggregated” by race, rank and gender, so that it can be analyzed from different angles. “You can go into the site,” she says, referring to Left Out, Left Behind, “and see, for example, how many female Hispanic assistant professors of chemistry there are at a particular school.”

Nelson collected data for the top 50 university departments that received the most funding in 14 separate scientific disciplines (for example, “top 50 psychology departments,” “top 50 chemistry departments,” “top 50 biological sciences departments”). The Web site provides the department statistics for 136 schools. It lists Harvard as having 1 female astronomy professor (out of 17) and 3 female chemistry professors (out of 23). A random search of other departments at universities shows similar results: Utah State University has 2 female professors of electrical engineering (out of 18); University of California Berkeley has 3 female mathematics professors (out of 65).

The National Women’s Law Center, along with 18 women’s and civil rights groups, recently sent a letter to Summers that called on him to “take the lead in addressing the persistent barriers that limit opportunities for women in math and science.” The groups provided a list of corrective steps that Summers should consider taking, such as making and implementing measures to recruit and retain women in math, science and engineering, and taking the lead in initiating dialogues with other university presidents.

In a reply letter dated Jan. 28, Summers said that he would share the groups’ recommendations with his colleagues. On Feb. 3, Harvard announced the appointment of two female-led task forces, one on women in the faculty and one on women in science and engineering, and charged them with developing recommendations on how to recruit, support and promote women more effectively.

For now, Nelson does not have plans to update the data for the Women in Sciences site on a yearly basis.

“It would depend on a lot of things, especially funding,” she explains. “But there’s always a possibility that we could make so much progress that it wouldn’t be necessary.”

Corrie Pikul is a correspondent for Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Iraqis Risk to Run; Summers Sets Off Storm:

Women Vastly Underrepresented in Academia:

Women in the Sciences: Left Out, Left Behind:

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