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Women in the Sciences

By Garrett M. Graff and Robin M. Wasserman, Crimson Staff Writerss

A quick flip through the Courses of Instruction tells a lot about Harvard--its breadth of courses, its famous professors and, perhaps less flatteringly, its lack of tenured women in the sciences.

A brief sampling:

Page 167, Chemistry: one tenured woman.

Page 111, Astronomy: one tenured woman.

Page 217: Earth and Planetary Sciences: no tenured women.

And the list goes on.

Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) say a variety of factors are driving many accomplished women away from Harvard and discouraging others from ever setting foot on campus.

Some women on the faculty criticize the lack of departmental and administration response to their concerns, but this year the University is making a new attempt to address the problem.

Citing his own increasing concern over the lack of female faculty in the sciences, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles has initiated a new task force to work with individual departments and actively recruit women for tenured positions.

But even if the task force is able to swell the numbers of female scholars--as many believe that it will--some faculty members say they believe the obstacles facing female scientists go much deeper than mere numbers.

A Catalyst for Change

The status of women in the sciences has gained national attention in the wake of an MIT report released last spring admitting to biased treatment of female faculty in the institute's School of Science.

After a five-year investigation, the school concluded that the female faculty had for years been victims of widespread, if largely unintentional, discrimination.

A committee initiated by MIT Professor Nancy H. Hopkins '64 found differences in salary, office and laboratory space, awards, resources and project funding between men and women on the faculty.

Since the release of the report, MIT has taken steps to alleviate the problems, and women there say their professional lives have improved immeasurably.

Yet Robert J. Birgeneau, Dean of MIT's School of Science says that administrators at other universities have been skeptical of the conclusions of the MIT study.

"I think it's obvious that women have been discriminated against in academia, so I have been surprised by colleagues at Ivy League institutions that it's not obvious to them as well," he says.

Behind Closed Doors

Though Harvard has not publicly addressed the issues raised by the MIT report, it has been wrestling with similar problems internally for years.

In 1991, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women released an in-depth report on women in the sciences, the first in a three part series to examine the status of women in the University over the course of a decade.

The 1991 report concluded that women in the sciences were hurt by

Harvard's antiquated hiring system, a lack of positive relationships with the senior faculty and a sense of "professional isolation."

The report also found that the number of women scientists working at each stage of a scientific career decreases as women ascend the academic ladder, saying that the "the pipeline of qualified drying up in graduate school."

Now, almost a decade later, many say the situation has not significantly improved.

A University report issued last spring says that "the conditions and situations [in the 1991 report] have not been completely--or even substantially--alleviated."

Howard Georgi '68, Mallinckrodt professor of physics and a leader in the attempt to improve the position and numbers of women at Harvard, says that steps have been taken to remedy problems cited in the 1991 report.

But he agrees that the University has a long way to go.

"There's been a tremendous amount of progress--there are fewer horror stories now," he says. "[But] we haven't seen a tremendous amount of progress towards real equality."

The most obvious sign of the inequalities that remain is the large discrepancy between the number of tenured men and women in the natural sciences.

Though the number of tenured women in the sciences has increased over the years, the numbers are still nowhere near equal.

In the natural sciences only 11 of 162 tenured faculty members, or 6.8 percent, are women.

Though some departments have made more progress in this area than others, female faculty members say that women in all departments suffer from low numbers of female colleagues and the resulting problems--fewer role models for younger women scholars, a diminished voice in departmental decision-making and fewer proponents of women's concerns University-wide.

Georgi, who will work this year on the University's newest attempt to woo more women to the Harvard faculty, says that the lack of senior female faculty is a problem not unique to Harvard.

"The situation at Harvard is definitely worse than in most places, but for reasons that are not difficult to understand," he says.

"The number of people we could conceivably be interested in is small, which makes it less likely that the person in any underrepresented group is going to be available at the time you're looking for them," Georgi says. "It's just a matter of small numbers."

Georgi says that departments must keep this in mind when formulating programs to recruit new female faculty. He suggests that they compensate for the small numbers of available women by keeping searches for new faculty broad.

Margaret J. Geller, professor of astronomy and winner of a MacArthur genius grant, says that she suspects the University is not as determined to tenure more female faculty as it claims to be.

Geller is listed by the University as a full professor within the astronomy department, though she remains untenured.

Offered an endowed Mallinckrodt chair in 1997, she turned it down because the chair would not come with tenure. Had she accepted, she would have been the only one of nine Mallinckrodt professors without tenure.

The other eight are male.

Geller says she believes that she has not been offered tenure because she is a woman.

"I can't really find any other explanation," she says. "The actions of the University in my case make it abundantly clear that the administration's rhetoric about Harvard's desire to attract and retain the most distinguished women in the world is empty."

Though most public discussion of the status of women in the sciences revolves around their small numbers, many faculty members say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

The Invisible Woman

Increasing the number of tenured women has proved to be a long and complicated process. Convincing the university to change the specific policies that negatively affect women can often be equally problematic--but at least these issues have concrete, if complex, solutions.

Many female faculty say that women in the sciences are hurt not only by statistical inequalities and troublesome policies but by the attitudes of the men in their department. And attitudes are not so easy to document and change as numerical discrepancies.

A common complaint is the sensation of marginalization.

Barbara J. Grosz, McKay professor of computer science and the only tenured woman in the Computer Science Department, says that women are rarely included in the decision-making process within departments.

"Women are by and large invisible to men," she says, adding that she believes the male members of the department are not purposely slighting their female colleagues.

Geller says that men often overlook the women in their departments and their fields because women aren't part of the "proverbial old boys club."

"It isn't intentional," Geller says. "It's that people don't think of [women], because they're not their


"When I go to meetings, I don't go out for drinks afterwards...or the poker game," she says. "I'm a woman, I'm not interested in being one of the guys."

Melissa Franklin, professor of physics, says she has noticed a "wave of sadness" among the female scientists in the senior faculty, a trend she attributes to both tacit and overt discrimination.

"There's definitely explicit condescension," she says. "There's definitely the kind of thing where when you finish talking to the person your heart is in your knees."

These more subtle modes of discrimination may not be as visible to those not directly affected by it.

Georgi, a former chair of the physics department, says he hasn't observed much overt discrimination.

"As far as marginalization is concerned I don't see it in my own department." Georgi says. He added that he thought the women in the department might feel marginalized just because there are so few of them.

Franklin says she has confronted Knowles with her concerns and found him unresponsive.

"I don't think we know what the answers are, but I don't think Dean Knowles thinks it's his problem, and maybe it's not," she says. "But I think it is."

Administrators agree that departmental culture can be a problem, but say that department chairs need to change that from within.

"Is [culture] something that University Hall can do? I don't think so," says Elizabeth Doherty, assistant dean for academic planning. "It's not something that can be legislated."

Many senior female faculty say that though the small numbers of women in the sciences is not the only problem, it is perhaps the most important one to tackle.

Cynthia M. Friend, Richards professor of chemistry, says that the only way for women to gain a voice within their departments is for them to gain a "constituency."

This is why, she says, she has directed her efforts towards increasing the number of tenured women in the sciences.

"I'd rather put my energies into things where I do think there are problems and I think I can make a difference."

Goodman says she believes that recruiting more women to the faculty will help raise the numbers of women in science at all levels. "Until more and more women get into astronomy and into other of these traditionally male fields they'll just look that unappealing way to a lot of other women," she says.

University Takes Action

This year, the University is making a new effort to address the paucity of women in the sciences. In a September letter to FAS, Knowles suggested that an expected wave of retirements in the next five years would provide an opportunity to redress the problem.

He has asked five scientists, Cabot Professor of Natural Sciences John E. Dowling '57, Friend, Georgi, Grosz and Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach to serve on the Ad Hoc Task Force on Faculty Diversity, which is still in its planning stages.

The task force has no set time frame but will meet as needed in the coming months.

They will meet with departmental search committees and work with them in an attempt to recruit more women.

"Some departments have been much more successful than others at hiring women in the recent past, and I want to be certain that we learn from those successes, and use that knowledge to catalyze change elsewhere," Knowles wrote in his letter to the Faculty.

Knowles also wrote that he expected the group would consider subject definitions, search procedures, recruitment strategies and any other factors influencing appointments.

"It represents a real opportunity to transform the faculty in terms of diversity," says Doherty, who serves as a liaison between Knowles and the task force.

Many faculty members are optimistic about the new initiative's chances for success. Georgi says he thinks the task force's method of working directly with each department will allow it to overcome the difficulties other such attempts have encountered in the past.

"What can I say?" Georgi asks. "I'm an optimist or I wouldn't worry about this particular problem--this is definitely an issue for optimists."

Grosz, who chaired the committee that published the 1991 report, says she has been dissatisfied with the recent pace of progress towards equality for women.She says she believes the new task force will help speed things along.

"It has some impressive people on it, and they are committed to doing something," she says.

On the other hand, Franklin says she doubts whether the task force's attempts will succeed where so many others have failed.

To her, the task force seems like nothing more than the first step in an all-too-familiar progression: task force, to committee, to report, to obscurity.

Franklin says there is no point in hiring more female faculty if they are still marginalized and unhappy once they arrive.

"It's like tennis--you have to hit the ball and follow through," she says.

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