Yale scientists probe gender gap

Women still face
an uneven playing field and encounter gender bias during
their time at Yale.
Women still face an uneven playing field and encounter gender bias during their time at Yale. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Though she graduated from Yale summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, Eileen Pollack ’78 said she did not feel triumphant. Unconfident, exhausted and discouraged, she soon gave up on her dream to be a scientist. Thirty years later, she returned to the University to investigate why other women were still doing the same.

Her findings led to a recent New York Times Magazine article that addressed a question that has resonated on university campuses for decades: “Why are there still so few women in science?”

Though Yale has made strides in hiring more female faculty members in the sciences, the ratio remains skewed. During the 2012-’13 academic year, the Physics Department had 21 male tenured professors and only three tenured female professors, while the Mathematics Department had 12 tenured male professors and zero tenured female professors. In all the physical sciences departments, there were nearly eight times as many male tenured professors as female professors.

Meanwhile, female students accounted for 17 percent of mathematics majors, 26 percent of physics majors and 31 percent of molecular biophysics and biochemistry majors.

In recent years, several Yale scientists have explored the apparent drop-off between studying science and pursuing a career in the sciences.

In a 2012 study, Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, asked science faculty at several research universities to evaluate a job application from a student assigned either a male or a female name. Though the applications were identical, professors rated the male applicant as more competent and said they would offer him a higher starting salary.

Handelsman’s findings indicated an entrenched gender bias against female students, she said in the study.

Though many scientists believe they are completely objective, physics and astronomy professor Meg Urry said this is not the case.

“The first step is for people to realize that they’re not judging men and women the same. Let’s not kid ourselves,” she said. “[Gender bias] is hurting us as a whole.”

DISPELLING MYTHS

Urry recalled a conversation she had several years ago with a female student taking “Perspectives on Science and Engineering,” a freshman seminar reserved for qualified applicants. The student was very upset, Urry remembered, because her pre-med roommates were already planning to modify their career paths so they could have families some day. They had chosen their future specialties based on how amenable those fields were to part-time work, she said.

“Here are people who are already editing themselves a decade in advance,” Urry said.

While Urry said countless women have asked her over the years if it is possible to have a family while pursuing a career in the sciences, she said she has never had a male student ask her that question.

One prominent theory for why women do not pursue careers in the sciences is that they choose to drop out of the “pipeline” — a term that describes the path from undergraduate degrees, to graduate school, to doctorates to the professoriate — in order to have families.

But Urry said this is not the full story. On average, women without families are not progressing any farther in their scientific careers than women with families, she said.

Instead, Urry suggested that women face an uneven playing field and are more easily discouraged than their male counterparts.

“But do most of the faculty and most of the science departments know the playing field is not level?” Urry said. “No, I don’t think they do.”

Urry said scientists need to educate themselves about gender bias, a subject that social science departments have been studying for decades.

Though many more women are studying science today than 30 years ago, Pollack said she was surprised to find that many aspects of students’ classroom experiences had not changed.

Even today, women worry about being perceived as legitimate scientists, she said, adding that the “ultra-sexualization and ultra-romanticization” of women in modern culture has exacerbated the issue.

To be taken seriously as scientists, women feel they have to dress one way, Pollack said, but if they want to feel feminine, they may have to dress another way.
For Provost Benjamin Polak, the issue is personal.

He said he worries about the social pressure against women in sciences that his two daughters might encounter in school when they’re older.

“You really have to focus hard on pushing back on unconscious bias,” he said.

A RESERVOIR OF TALENT

Over the years, Urry said she has seen many female students interpret a B+ or A- as an indication that they do not belong in the sciences.

Though the common belief among scientists is that the students who drop out are less qualified than the ones who stay through their undergraduate and graduate careers, Urry said the data does not support the theory that departments are “skimming off the top.” The students who remain are not necessarily better than the ones who leave, she said.

If universities want to encourage the best students to stay, all students, male and female, need support and encouragement along the way, Pollack said.

In the biological and physical sciences at Yale, about 50 percent of Ph.D.’s go to men and about 50 percent got to women, said Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for the social sciences and faculty development. But between 2000 and 2012, only 23 percent of term faculty members in those departments were women, and only 11 percent of tenured professors in those departments were female.

Rosenbluth said departments should be hiring the most talented applicants. If only 20 percent of the faculty in a field are women, the department is missing out on a lot of smart people, she said.

Women are not being hired according to their availability in the pool of qualified applicants, she said.

Echoing Rosenbluth’s statements, Provost Polak added that qualified women constitute a “huge reservoir of talent” that is currently underutilized.

“We, at Yale, have to take advantage of that,” he said.

A BRIGHTER FUTURE?

Though the University is continually working to improve retention of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, progress in the hiring and retention of female faculty members over the past several decades has remained “frustratingly slow,” according to a 2012-2013 report from the Yale Women Faculty Forum.

Physics Professor Michael Zeller said his department has made some strides on the issue. The Physics Department now has four female faculty members, whereas five years ago they only had one, he said.

“In physics, we’ve increased our number of females as fairly [and] as rapidly as I think you can,” Zeller said. “The Physics Department has really been trying to be hospitable to women.”

In 2008, the University implemented a new tenure system that judges faculty solely on the merits of their work, Rosenbluth said. As a result of the new system, greater numbers of women may receive tenure because the junior faculty is more diverse, she said.

Yale also received a $375,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build mentorship programs for postdoctorate fellows, Rosenbluth said. To encourage the fellows not to drop out, Yale trains postdocs in subjects such as conflict management, lab management and paper submission, she said.

To extend support to undergraduates, the Physics Department also holds conferences for female students in physics, at which established female scientists network with students and discuss problems students might face during their science careers. The conferences provide role models for female science students, Urry said.
When role models are in scarce supply, Rosenbluth said it is easy for women to become discouraged.

“They feel alienated in the classroom because there’s nobody in the front who looks like them,” she said.

Though Pollack said more day care resources for faculty members would help female scientists, she said the future number of female students in STEM fields depends in part on more encouragement and a more collaborative spirit in the sciences.

“These are not big changes, they just have huge consequences,” Pollack said.

As of the 2012-’13 academic year, there were 791 male tenured professors and 249 female tenured professors at the University.

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