Several factors hinder women in the sciences

Although opinion varies widely on the current state of gender equality in the sciences at Yale, most administrators, faculty and graduate students said they agree that increasing the number of tenured female faculty members is an important goal for the University.

There are currently 17 tenured female science professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, up from only six in 1993. While the numbers are rising, women remain a distinct minority in scientific fields.

The issue has been receiving increased attention in light of Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ controversial comments recently that there may be “intrinsic differences” between men and women that inhibit women from rising in scientific fields. But Yale professors and administrators had different ideas about why women are still such a minority.

“I think we’ve only in recent years seen significantly greater numbers of women in the life sciences, and it’s still the case in the physical sciences that women are underrepresented,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who oversees appointments in the science departments. “I think the problem is caused by many different things, but there certainly is a pipeline problem. We need to encourage women to study in fields in high school and college that have been stereotyped as male fields.”

Meg Urry, who in 2000 became the first tenured female professor at Yale in physics, said she sees the problem as a cultural one.

“Personally I don’t believe there are any intrinsic differences between men and women,” she said. “It has to do with culture and socialization. In Western cultures, men are raised to be more aggressive and more competitive. In a field where you’re judged by how much you say, women’s relative reticence and politeness can be interpreted as a lack of ability.”

Astronomy Department Chair Charles Bailyn, a member of the curricular review committee and chair of the Science Council, said although he does not think there is a lot of overt discrimination against women anymore, there are still internalized expectations on the part of both men and women that minimize the women’s accomplishments.

“Many women I’ve talked to have had the experience of proposing an idea and getting ignored, and then seeing a man propose it and be heard,” he said. “It’s more difficult for a woman to be regarded as a superior scientist than a man with the same accomplishments.”

Establishing female role models in high positions helps students and young professors gain confidence and learn to be more aggressive, Urry said.

“I have young women coming to talk to me and I know darn well they’re not going to talk to the men,” she said. “You can always advise people best when they are very much like you because you understand them better.”

Urry said she talks to young female physics majors who are hesitant to go to graduate school because they do not think they are smart enough.

“I say, ‘You’re getting top grades in one of the hardest majors at a top university … if this is what you’re interested in, please do it,'” she said. “Many of my colleagues mistake self-confidence for ability, but studies show that women often underestimate their abilities and men often overestimate theirs.”

Physics Department Chair Ramamurti Shankar, a member of the curricular review committee, agreed that having women in senior positions encourages other women to enter scientific fields.

“There is no more compelling reason for a woman to turn to science than seeing women in the faculty,” he said. “I can help students as much as possible, but nothing equals the fact that we have three women [in the Physics Department] now. They are doing so much in terms of recruiting women into science.”

But several professors and graduate students said they think progress at Yale is being made too slowly, if at all. On Feb. 17, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization wrote a letter to Yale President Richard Levin asking that he respond to Summers’ comments and urging Levin to take a leadership role in making policy changes that would benefit female professors. Their suggestions included improved health and child care policies and increased flexibility in tenure policies.

Rachel Jackman GRD ’07, a member of GESO and a Ph.D. candidate in immunobiology, said increased flexibility in tenure policies would help women stay on the tenure track when they have children. Instead of getting a block of time off from the date of her child’s birth, a woman would benefit more from doing intermittent work during her leave and reducing her hours over a longer period of time, she said.

“To take a full six months off in the sciences isn’t possible,” Jackman said. “You have to be getting grants, funding your research, your lab and your salary. The way it’s structured, it’s very hard to stop for a moment in science.”

Christine Jacobs-Wagner, an assistant biology professor, said that improving tenure, health and child care policies would not change the fact that having children as a science professor remains difficult.

“Certainly improving child care would be great,” she said. “But it’s not just about tenure at Yale; we compete internationally. If you have children while you’re trying to establish yourself, you may ruin your momentum. I don’t think this is a problem with Yale’s policy; it’s how the entire system works.”

Urry had a somewhat different view, saying that having children in any career is difficult, and that there is a tendency to exaggerate these difficulties and think they only apply to female professors.

“Women in academia who have kids have the wherewithal and the flexibility to do as well or better than women in other jobs,” Urry said. “I think it’s much harder to have a nine-to-five job at Walmart and have kids, because there is so little flexibility.”

Amid this debate, Levin continues to work to improve conditions for the University’s female scientists, Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said.

“Since President Levin has taken office, he has increased the number of ladder and tenure women faculty, and he’s increased by two and a half times the number of women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Klasky said. “It has been a top priority of his.”

University Provost Andrew Hamilton said the administration is at the early stages of planning a faculty committee to investigate the appointment and promotion process to tenure and to determine if it has deficiencies.

“We certainly need to increase the number of outstanding female scholars in the sciences, but this is a slow process and there are no quick or easy solutions,” said Hamilton, a former deputy provost for science and technology and chair of the Chemistry Department.

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