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...