See No Evil

Women in the sciences face obstacles so subtle they're sometimes hard to recognize

Professor of Physics Melissa Franklin describes the physics department at Harvard with two words: “arrogant and rough.”

Franklin says she has come to accept that some of her colleagues strive to project this tough image. “That’s sort of the way people like it,” she says.

But this cutthroat attitude, she says, does not create an environment conducive to work for all scientists—and particularly not for women—who still face nagging cultural hurdles that make it far more difficult to excel.

“[It’s] no longer people saying things like, ‘You shouldn’t be in physics.’ It’s more the feeling you get: Does this person think you’re smart or not?” Franklin says. “Eventually you spend all your time thinking about that.”

Franklin says the competitive atmosphere fostered in science departments by their mostly male faculty members exacerbates this lack of confidence in women. “The problem is that people don’t know what it feels like to be a minority in a field and they can’t really understand,” Franklin says.

For the past 10 years, Harvard administrators and faculty members have been trying to do just that—understand and overcome the barriers facing women in the sciences.

Undergraduates gather for Women in Physics dinners and meetings of the Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe (WISHR) group. Faculty committees seek out top female scientists to fill vacant posts. And some female faculty form support networks at weekly lunches

But still, at Harvard, female scientists are a long way from reaching parity with their male counterparts.

According to the University’s 2003 Affirmative Action Plan, there are 14 tenured female professors in the natural sciences—roughly 8.9 percent of all tenured in that category—and only eight women among the assistant and associate professor ranks.

At the undergraduate level, 38 percent of the 1,558 natural science concentrators during the 2000-2001 academic year were women. That’s up slightly from the 1995-1996 academic year, when 34 percent of natural science concentrators were female.

Administrators say they are still trying to determine exactly what factors are keeping women out of the sciences—and how those barriers can be broken.

Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics emeritus Gerald Holton, who has authored several articles on the gender imbalance, says the number of women in the sciences has reached a plateau because the barriers that remain are far less obvious than those already eradicated.

“In general...the structural obstacles for women in science have disappeared,” Holton says. “What’s harder to police are those micro-inequalities.”

Holton and others in the academy say that so long as cultural characteristics—including an environment that fosters cutthroat competition, a teaching methodology that focuses more on technique than on applications and the simple lack of women itself—persist, women will never feel truly at home in the natural sciences.

“I think that the kind of cultural practices are difficult to correct because they’re very subtle,” says Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton University and a molecular biologist. “There is no quick fix. Basically you just have to constantly whittle away at each one of these things.”

SEE NO EVIL...

Few women in the sciences at Harvard say they feel disadvantaged because of their gender.

Most female math and science concentrators say they have not felt any discrimination—and have gotten used to being in the minority.

Blythe M. Adler ’05, a math concentrator, says the gender disparity in her department—which boasts no tenured female professors and only one female undergraduate adviser—is irrelevant to her and may be natural.

“It doesn’t bother me just because in most of my math classes I’ve gotten used to having not so many women,” Adler says. “Some people say the male brain is better at thinking quantitatively. Part of me thinks that there are so many more males [in math] that maybe they do think differently.”

Some science concentrators even say gender discrimination runs in the opposite direction at Harvard.

Julia I. Hanover ’04, a math and physics concentrator, says the services that are available to female science concentrators provide women with an unfair advantage.

“Right now it’s almost easier to be a girl than a guy,” she says. “It seems like there are all these setups to help women out...That’s really unfair, especially with the mentoring. That’s something a lot of guys need, too.”

Hanover says support systems—like scholarships limited to women in science—only hold women back.

“I don’t feel that any source of discrimination is going to be helpful,” she says. “It kind of degrades the value of the scholarship if it’s only for women. It implicitly states that women aren’t as good as men.”

THE MICRO-INEQUALITIES

Despite the doubt of some female science concentrators, many professors say inequities still exists—though in subtle forms.

Nancy H. Hopkins, an MIT biology professor who spearheaded that university’s initiative to improve conditions for female faculty, says she thinks women who believe they are on a level playing field with men are in denial.

Hopkins says it took her 20 years to realize that she was being treated differently than her male colleagues.

She explains that for her, and for most talented female scientists, the notion that one could be treated differently because of gender was unthinkable.

“There’s just something so intrinsically irritating about it,” she says.

But many in the academy say that the very way science is taught and practiced—at Harvard and elsewhere—is shutting women out of the field. They point to the cutthroat competition and a heavy focus on the theoretical in teaching.

Such a view is supported by Research Associate in Physics Gerhard Sonnert, a sociologist who published a 1995 book based on his extensive study on the factors keeping women out of the natural sciences.

He says that great strides have been made to level the playing field for women in the sciences, but the bulk of that work was focused on removing structural barriers. And now the hardest part—eliminating the obstacles caused by the culture and environment of the sciences—remains, he adds.

“Initial changes can be rapid. Now we have to deal with more subtle things—and those are harder to deal with because they cannot be legislated,” Sonnert says.

Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Howard Georgi ’67-’68 says he first noticed a problem with the way Harvard taught science in the early 1980s.

When he looked at the results of the annual senior survey for the first time, he says he noticed that, on average, women concentrating in physics were doing a whole grade better in their non-science classes than in their science classes.

He broke all of the results down by gender—and what he found surprised him.

“I discovered that women physics majors hated it,” Georgi says. “That struck me as absolutely intolerable because these were the women that stuck with it and hated it. I wanted to understand this.”

Georgi says he began talking to female physics concentrators and came to believe the difficulty they were having was related to a lack of confidence and a different style of communication.

“[Women] communicate very differently about physics than men,” Georgi says. “Women are typically less aggressive than men are in communicating…Unless you’re willing to tell your adviser he’s an idiot, you’re not going to do well.”

Georgi began a tradition of weekly Wednesday night physics study group sessions to give women more confidence in themselves and show his students how to behave as colleagues.

“There are times when you’re doing a problem set in a course where you have to keep going even though you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s psychologically easier for men,” Georgi says.

Eleanore L. Chadderdon ’03 says while the physics study groups are for both men and women, they especially help female concentrators build confidence.

“I’ve heard that if a woman cannot solve a problem she might think, ‘I’m just too dumb to do this,’ whereas a guy might think this problem is wrong,” Chadderdon says. “If you meet with other people…you realize the problem set is hard and it’s not you.”

Maria J. Trumpler, lecturer on the history of science, says that groups like WISHR are necessary to make sure women know their interest in science does not have to end with their undergraduate years.

“Women still don’t get as far as their careers in science as men do and we don’t know why,” Trumpler says. “And this organization is supposed to explore those [reasons].”

Trumpler says the disparity in the numbers of men and women in the sciences is a result of cultural expectations of behavior based on gender.

“If we think that a really important part of learning an academic subject is putting it in your own words, in a lab meeting or discussion setting, and getting constructive responses, we have to make sure men and women feel equally comfortable doing that,” Trumpler says. “Gender would be at work in students’ choices to participate, to raise their hands, to risk being wrong and also the kind of expectations the teaching fellow has for them based on their gender and backgrounds.”

“I’m sure there are men who are uncomfortable too, but women are more at risk in speaking up in a setting perceived as male than men are,” she adds.

Georgi says he thinks things have changed for women.

He says he sees women taking on a leadership role in class more often now than a few years ago. But with more women participating in the sciences now, he says, the physics department must avoid becoming “complacent.”

“In the sciences, it’s so obvious there’s a problem that recognizing there’s a problem is not the issue,” Georgi says. “This is a really recent development and these gains could easily be reversed unless they propagate up the system.”

McKay Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer ’83 says she believes more female undergraduates would be attracted to the sciences if the courses focused more on the way science can be practically employed in the world.

“Any effort to relate the technology to its applications are likely to have payback,” she says.

Trumpler says that many of the women who become dissatisfied with science concentrations are disillusioned and intimidated by the big introductory classes.

“Large intro classes are so impersonal and so big…that they wean people out based on how well they can do on tests,” Trumpler says, pointing out that this is not necessarily the best way to tell whether someone will be a good scientist.

Trumpler says she has been pleased to see the increase in freshman seminars offered in the natural sciences. She says that may be just the kind of small-group instruction that could allow for a hands-on, collaborative style of learning that would draw more women at Harvard into the sciences.

Sonnert and Holton, on the contrary, don’t believe that women actually learn differently than men. In their studies, they observed that smaller factors—like less financial support from their families—cumulatively add up to make it more difficult for women to successfully pursue careers in science.

But even those women who make it through their educations and enter academic careers in the sciences often find that science is an area of intellectual pursuit developed by men and for men. Factors including the way research is done—largely by individuals—and the intense and sometimes merciless competition, are turning women off to science, some say.

Hopkins, the MIT biology professor, says she has noticed this intensity.

“It’s a system where winning is everything, and women find it repulsive,” Hopkins says of the contemporary culture of the natural sciences community in the academy. “Harvard is well known as the worst—their record is a disgrace.”

While universities may not be able to regulate the friendliness of professors, some academics say action must be taken to change the culture of sciences if they truly want to create an environment that is welcoming to a more diverse body of scientists.

A GROUP EFFORT

Once the challenges facing women in the natural sciences made their way onto the radar screens of the Faculty, multiple concrete policies and programs were instituted to both recruit more female scientists, at the professor and student levels, to come to Harvard—and to make their experience more pleasant once they arrive.

Today, there is no dearth of services to help guide female science undergraduates and professors alike.

Many faculty members say that Georgi was one of the first to push for change in the way Harvard deals with women in science.

Under his tenure as dean of the Faculty, Jeremy R. Knowles instituted several policies aimed at improving the status of women scientists.

In 1999, Knowles formed an ad hoc committee of senior faculty members—headed up by Georgi—in the natural sciences to encourage departments to identify outstanding women scientists, both junior and senior, who might be recruited to Harvard.

“A group of people complained so much about these issues to Jeremy Knowles that he thought it would be a better use of his time to listen to us all together,” Georgi says.

The committee, which still exists, has focused on prodding department chairs in the natural sciences to recruit women for faculty positions.

But some have also taken the issue of directly helping fellow female science students into their own hands.

On a Tuesday night in October, 29 undergraduates and graduates gathered in the mostly dark Lyman Hall to throw out questions to a female science professor from Spain over a dinner of Middle Eastern food from Skewers.

The group, which was there for the third Women in Physics dinner of the year, asked the professor about balancing work and family and the perception of female physicists in Spain.

Michelle C. Cyrier, a second-year graduate student in physics who helps organize the dinners, says she is not sure whether women face obstacles in science that men do not—but she says it doesn’t hurt to talk about it.

“Sometimes women get isolated in the sciences because there just aren’t that many women,” Cyrier says. “This organization is designed for undergraduates and graduates to meet each other.”

Hanover, the math and physics concentrator, says she was angry when last year the women at the dinners voted not to allow men to attend.

While men were in fact invited to attend this year, Hanover says the vote represents reverse gender discrimination in the sciences.

“I feel very strongly that the obstacles are an illusion and that [women] put them there,” Hanover says. “I’m sure some guys are bigoted, but there’s always going to be some subjective thing holding people back.”

But Julia G. Fox, who heads up a mentorship program for women in science through the Ann Radcliffe Trust, says that though many women in science do not think they are any worse off than the men—but that does not mean support structures should not exist for them.

“You don’t always want to feel like you’re struggling,” Fox says. “Young women enjoy the camaraderie of other young women in their projects, in their classes. That’s why we instituted this mentorship program with graduate students who have stuck it out.”

Trumpler says she feels young women in the sciences need mentors, both for their support and for the example they provide of the model for a successful scientific career.

In a spring 2002 survey of 408 undergraduates, The Crimson found that less than half of the female science concentrators surveyed felt they could identify a professor or teaching fellow as an academic mentor. Among the male science concentrators surveyed, on the other hand, more than half said that they had a mentor.

Trumpler says the mere presence of women professors in the classroom can be a huge boost for female science concentrators.

“Young women really need…to see how to present yourself…what kind of personal styles you can have,” she argues.

Fox says the board of the Ann Radcliffe Trust created its mentorship program last year to help female undergraduates gain a better view of what science can be like after college.

The program matches up female undergraduate science concentrators with graduate students who volunteer to be mentors for a year.

Last year’s pilot program matched up roughly 10 undergraduates with a half dozen graduate students. This year, there are 24 pairs of mentees and mentors.

Participants meet monthly with their mentors to get advice about careers in science, research and classes.

The program also invites undergraduates to attend everything from barbecues, co-sponsored with WISHR, to teas to luncheons with female scientists.

Fox says the program aims to make sure participants see science as a long-term option.

“The numbers of women do decline after the undergraduate years,” Fox says. “They’re always looking for women to attract to the faculty ranks and if you don’t retain them, you’re not going to have them in the faculty ranks.”

Female undergraduates who do not seek the advice of a graduate student can also turn to WISHR’s Big/Little Sibling program, which matches female first-years with female upperclass students based on their area of interest in science

“Freshman year I was matched up with a big sib who was a huge help to me picking my classes and my path and whether I wanted to go into science,” says Maria van Wagenberg ’04, a WISHR officer. “It made me much more confident to do it because I’d seen this girl do it.”

WISHR is the most established network for women in science at Harvard.

Mallika L. Mundkur ’04, a biochemistry concentrator and a WISHR officer, says the group began in response to sexism women used to face in the sciences—but she says that discrimination no longer exists.

“Now you might be able to say we don’t need a certain support network,” Mundkur says. “Now that it’s established we can use it.”

One way that the officers have used the group was to hold a conference this spring on issues related to gender and science, such as balancing career and family and wage disparity between genders.

Aliya Z. Jiwani ’04, a chemistry concentrator and a WISHR officer, says WISHR is necessary because women still have not reached parity with men in the sciences.

“As a chemistry concentrator, I feel like at grad schools women are just not represented,” Jiwani says. “It’s really a rising concern to get more women into scientific careers.”

The best way to present science as a viable career option to female undergraduates, however, is unclear.

Sonnert and Holton found counter-intuitive results on the question of whether women serve as better mentors. In their observations, for men, having a female adviser made roughly no difference. And for some women, having a female adviser actually had a negative impact.

They speculate that these female mentors—the pioneers of their day—might have presented an image of what it was like to be a woman in the sciences that was not appealing to the younger generation.

Richards Professor of Chemistry Cynthia M. Friend, who is the only tenured woman in the chemistry department, says she feels she may be an example of a female role model in science who does not immediately inspire women to pursue her career.

She says that she chooses to maintain an extremely busy professional life, fulfilling many administrative roles within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in addition to her teaching and research obligations.

Friend says many of her students look at her and see a lifestyle that they don’t want, which is why she feels it’s important for young women to see that there are other ways to pursue a career in science.

With greater attention to the issues of mentorship, teaching and culture, many professors and students are hopeful that women will eventually reach a critical mass in the natural sciences at Harvard.

Looking at the students and professors at work in the laboratories of Jefferson Hall, home to Harvard’s physics department, Holton sees a positive trend.

He points out a photograph of the current physics faculty that hangs near his office. It shows a department with four tenured female professors among its ranks.

He then shuffles excitedly down the hallway to show off a wall covered with the photographs of all the current undergraduate physics concentrators. About a fifth of the faces on this wall belong to women.

The point, Holton says, is that women—generation by generation—are slowly breaking into physics at Harvard.

“There is this crowd coming on at last,” he says.