The Catch-22 of Underrepresentation

Since the year 2000, women have come a long way in gaining tenure on Yale’s campus. Recent data compiled by the Women’s Faculty Forum shows an uptick in the number of women who have obtained tenure since the turn of the millennium. Women comprise 29 percent of the faculty members who have gained tenure since 2000 and remained at the University. That number is more than double the 14 percent of Yale’s faculty in 2000 who were female.

But within the biological and physical sciences, the gains have been less striking. Whereas women represented 12 percent of the tenured faculty in 2000, only 19 percent of the faculty who gained tenure since that date are women.

When asked to explain Yale’s low retention rate of female faculty members in the sciences, astronomy and physics professor Priyamvada Natarajan attributed it to subtle unconscious biases dictating that women are less adept in scientific modes of thinking. Natarajan helped compile the data for the Women’s Faculty Forum.

“It’s difficult to explain this to science faculty and get them to accept it, because scientists consider themselves very objective and fair,” Natarajan said. “But the fact is that these implicit associations are part of all of us.”

In 1996, Robert Birgenau, then-dean of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asked a committee to examine the status of female professors within the school, who at the time made up just 8 percent of its faculty. In a landmark study published that year, the committee found that most female junior faculty members said they believed that gender bias would not impact their careers.

Still, tenured female faculty members earned significantly less and won fewer prestigious prizes than their male counterparts. Moreover, many tenured women faculty felt marginalized and excluded from playing a significant role in their departments. Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that women’s sense of marginalization grows as they advance in their careers.

A Matter of Attitude, Environment

When physics and astronomy professor Meg Urry started out as a female scientist in the 1970s, she was told that her career would be easy. Universities were eager to hire women, people said, and women in science were in particular demand.

“In college I was the only woman physics major in my class,” Urry said. “At the time, I kind of relished being a pioneer. But when I entered the work world, I realized that things were a lot harder than people made them seem.”

As both an astronomer and a physicist, Urry found that women were outnumbered in every institution for which she worked. In 1987, while working at an observatory, she began to study the gender disparities within scientific disciplines. A look at the numbers compelled her to become an advocate for stronger female representation in the sciences. Urry noted that there has been tremendous improvement in astronomy since then, with the numbers “tipping over” so that women constitute about half of the faculty in many astronomy departments.

In physics, however, there has been little progress. Despite the fact that physics and astronomy demand the same skill set, Urry said, there are currently only four female professors among the 30 members of Yale’s Physics Department. Urry pointed out that these numbers are equivalent to those of astronomy 30 years ago — a time when the data was so discouraging that she felt drawn into activism.

Since there are so few women in the field to begin with, it is hard for young women to gain confidence, Urry said. She remarked that girls always set much higher standards of success for themselves, and if they do not reach them, they assume that they are not good enough. Male students, on the other hand, seem less affected by failure.

“I work with a lot of female undergraduates who love physics but think that they’re somehow not intelligent enough to pursue it,” Urry said. “And it makes me wonder, they’re in one of the most competitive colleges, getting A’s and B’s — what are we doing that they think they’re not smart enough?”

Many of the undergraduates interviewed said that they often sense implicit biases against women in science programs that make the environment less conducive to learning. Maya Fishbach ’15, one of four girls in her “Vector Calculus and Linear Algebra II” class, said that while she does not feel that her professor treats her differently from the male students in her class, she also does not feel as confident in the classroom as her male counterparts. Part of the reason for this, she noted, is that many of the guys in her classes do not acknowledge the girls as being a part of the same group and seem oblivious to the difficulties facing women in male-dominated disciplines.

“It’s hard to be friendly with them because all the guys are buddy-buddy with each other, and the girls are on the outside,” Fishbach said.

Even as early as high school, the sciences and math can feel like an old boy network, noted one undergraduate interviewed. Madeleine Barrow ’15 said that she first noticed the “misogynistic” atmosphere of academic sciences when she represented her native country of Australia in the International Physics Olympiad during her senior year of high school. She recalled that one of the teams had a tradition of putting on a “Miss IPhO” pageant at the end of the competition, in which they voted for the “hottest” woman physicist present. Barrow added that since there was no “Mr. IPhO,” it made her wonder whether the males present viewed female competitors as legitimate.

It was experiences of this variety that dissuaded Eileen Pollack ’78 from pursuing sciences several decades ago. As a student in Yale College, Pollack was the only woman studying for a bachelor’s of science in physics, and she had no female physics professors to serve as role models. She said that she spent four years “working herself sick.” Even though she was doing advanced research and getting A’s in her classes by senior year, Pollack had decided that she no longer wanted to be a woman in a scientific discipline. At each step of the game, men seemed to be ahead, and it was a race that she no longer wanted to run.

“I handed in my senior honors thesis,” Pollack said, “and I walked away from physics forever.”

Pollack is now an English professor at the University of Michigan. She returned to Yale two years ago to speak with undergraduate women in math and science: “I found that there are a lot more women in physics and math, but each woman’s individual experiences haven’t really changed from my time. That’s really shocking.”

Meanwhile, some faculty members think that it is only a matter of time before women reach parity with men in science.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Geology & Geophysics Department Chair David Bercovici. “The male tenured faculty were hired in a time when there just weren’t enough women applicants. That’s going to change in the next several years.”

In light of the newly released data, though, it seems unlikely that this kind of progress will manifest itself at Yale anytime soon. When it comes to meeting its diversity goals, where is the University going wrong?

Undergraduate degree. Ph.D. Tenure?

The most striking thing about the Women’s Faculty Forum’s data on female representation in the biological and physical sciences is that up until Ph.D. completion, the ratio of men to women is about 55 to 45. But the gender proportions shift sharply for term faculty, which is 78 percent men to 22 percent women. This trend continues until the final stage of academia, as women constitute only 11 percent of tenured science faculty. At each step of the academic career scale, female representation dwindles.

For some disciplines, the discrepancy begins at the undergraduate level. According to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research, only two out of the 20 computer science majors for the class of 2012 are women. Slightly higher numbers are recorded for engineering and applied science, with seven females out of a total 20 biomedical engineering majors.

There is a far greater proportion of women scientists at the undergraduate level than at the tenured faculty level. Scientific disciplines in which women majors outnumber men for this year’s graduating class are environmental engineering (seven women to one man) and biology (51 women to 32 men). But within the biological and physical sciences overall, men outnumber women by approximately 14 percent among the seniors of 2012. Thus, there is a far greater proportion of women scientists at the undergraduate level than at the tenured faculty level.

What accounts for the lack of women scientists in senior-level faculty positions? Professor Joan Steitz, a molecular biologist and longtime advocate for women’s advancement in science, said that the “drop-off” is a combination of women getting discouraged from being in an atmosphere in which women do not feel appreciated.

“In all the committees I’ve sat on where I was the only woman among 20 or 30 men,” Steitz said, “I didn’t contribute as much as I would have if the situation were different. I just didn’t have the courage to push my perspectives as much as I should have.”

Notably, Steitz pointed out that most of the freshmen she worked with are enthusiastic and seem unfazed by gender disparities. “Things are pretty good for undergraduates — up until you get your Ph.D., things are pretty equivalent in the life sciences. Undergraduates are upbeat; they feel like it’s pretty much an even playing field,” she said.

But within the engineering and applied sciences, some female undergraduates said they feel the limitations of gender as early as freshman year.

Catherine Harmer ’15, who is considering a major in either physics or engineering, said that she dropped her electrical engineering class not only because of overall workload, but partially because she felt less confident as a student within such a male-dominated environment.

“I didn’t feel that I was inferior to the men,” Harmer said, “but I felt that the class was geared towards them and that there was something ‘off’ about the atmosphere that made me somewhat socially uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it had to do with the professor or the gender ratio, but it was definitely a more difficult environment to learn in.”

At the faculty level, the issue is more than a question of confidence or how conducive the workplace is to success in both genders — when it comes to who gets tenure and who does not, the problem is systemic.

“The tenure system needs to evolve,” Bercovici said, adding that the rigorous process undergone by tenure-track candidates was initially designed for “men who had wives to raise their kids for them.”

“I’m not saying women can’t do it,” he continued, “but it’s a timing issue.” Bercovici expressed optimism for the future of women faculty, predicting that as more females are hired by departments, they will modify the tenure system so that it is more amenable to everybody.

Karen Seto, a professor at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, agreed that family responsibilities can make an already challenging career even more difficult. However, she added that women academics looking to raise families should choose spouses with schedules that complement theirs: “One of the best pieces of advice I got early on in my career was, ‘To be a successful scientist, you need to choose your spouse very carefully.’” Seto said that she is able to put in as many hours as she does at work because her husband does “the lion’s share of the homemaking.”

Other professors interviewed are less hopeful about future prospects of gender equality in academia. If there are so few female faculty members to begin with, they asked, how will they be able to transform the system into one that identifies the professional successes for both men and women? Furthermore, as Natarajan pointed out, most men and women academics today have comparable curricula vitae — the “timing issue” does not seem to have a significant effect on women’s performance.

Natarajan said that “the main handicap for women in science at Yale is subtle, unconscious bias issues.” The debate should no longer be about whether women are less evolutionarily equipped to study sciences, Natarajan remarked: “Stuff like that detracts from the main issue, which is the following: how can we make the experience of doing science just as rewarding for both men and women?”

Implicit Biases

When assistant professor of psychiatry Hedy Kober signed in for her first day of work at the Yale School of Medicine, the clerk behind the desk looked up at her and said, “Oh, aren’t you cute!” After that, she said, she changed her attire and hairstyle in order to look more serious. “I try to make a point of seeming adult-like, so there won’t be any chance that anyone will look at me and say, ‘Oh, look at that cute girl!’” she said.

Kober, a cognitive neuroscientist, says that relatively few women go into her field, and that the professional environment isn’t necessarily conducive to values that women hold in the personal lives. She cited family, children and relationships as examples that interfered with the work-life balance considered fitting within the cognitive neuroscience field. As a result, Kober says, “I almost have to forget that I am a woman — so that it doesn’t influence anyone else’s perception of me.”

Nearly all of the women interviewed for this story cited certain implicit biases that make working in scientific fields more challenging for them as females. Research shows that, when women are even subtly reminded of their gender, it triggers negative stereotypes about women, and that reminder is enough to make them perform worse. In other words, a person’s performance can be affected by the stereotypes of his or her social group when that aspect of his or her identity is made salient — an effect known as the ‘stereotype threat.’

In a 1999 study, Nalini Ambady of Harvard University and her colleagues asked Asian-American girls to take a math exam. Before they began the test, they were instructed to check a box demarcating either their ethnicity or gender, while a control group did not check off any demographic information. The researchers found that the girls who had been subtly reminded of their ethnicity prior to starting the exam performed better than the control group, while girls reminded of their gender performed worse. These findings correspond to the stereotypes that Asian-Americans are better than average at quantitative thinking and that girls are worse than boys. Ambady’s group subsequently found that children as young as 5 years old both understand these stereotypes and can be affected by them.

Whenever people worry that they may confirm a stereotype about the social group to which they belong, they are more likely to confirm that exact stereotype. For women climbing the scientific research ladder, the threat is likely to worsen the further they progress, because they tend to have fewer females surrounding them. And as the number of females dwindles, the association between masculinity and science grows stronger.

Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, says that the rate of attrition is so high in the sciences because, in a male-dominated environment, women get the message that they don’t fit.

“The climate is not actively hostile,” LaFrance explained. “It’s not like the old days where women were just not given access to any resources. It’s that they don’t quite feel comfortable, they just feel a little off.”

A more recent study out of Rice University may have pinpointed one of the sources of stereotype threat in academia. The researchers analyzed letters of recommendation — which are essential to obtaining tenure — and found that letter-writers use different terms to describe men and women. Men are more likely to be praised for their independence and intelligence, while women are more often described as cooperative and personable. This finding held steady whether the letter writers were male or female. Evaluators, the analysis found, are more likely to choose a candidate with qualities such as independence, which are associated with men.

Kober said that she is only able to succeed despite these stereotypes because she concentrates on her identity as a scientist rather than as a woman. “I don’t give anyone the chance to dwell on it, so it isn’t really a point of discussion,” she explained.

As of late, psychologists have begun exploring ways to extinguish stereotype threat. A team from the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany sorted eighth graders into either same-sex or mixed-sex physics classes. After a year spent in class, the researchers found that the girls in the all-girls classroom exhibited more self-confidence in their physics abilities. By contrast, the girls who spent a year in a mixed-sex classroom had lower self-confidence, and boys’ self-confidence in a single-sex classroom was unaffected. In a 2010 investigation at the University of Colorado, researchers found that asking girls at the start of a 15-week college physics course to write about their most important values led them to perform better on exams and boosted their self-confidence.

“All of us — including women — hold unconscious biases that favor men over women, because our culture views science as a man’s domain,” Steitz said.

Climbing Science Hill

While progress on eliminating and making people aware of implicit biases remains slow, women scientists at Yale are working on other fronts to fight gender disparities. This January, the University hosted the fifth annual Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in memory of the late Michele Dufault ’11, who was in charge of running the conference before she passed away in a laboratory accident last April.

“Michele was an incredible mentor to me,” said conference organizer Ariel Ekblaw ’14. “Ellen Klein ’12, my coordinator, and I wanted to host the conference because we thought this would be an important year to honor her passion and dedication to the sciences, as well as to do right by her memory.”

Dufault’s former suitemates are also working on continuing her legacy in the form of a summer research fellowship in her name. Merlyn Deng ’11, one of the people who founded the Michele Dufault Summer Research Fellowship and Conference Fund, said that they hope to raise $100,000 over this year, which will enable them to endow the fund in perpetuity.

Events such as the Northeastern Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics not only bring women scientists together to share in one another’s experiences, but they also enable students to interact with established female leaders whom they can look up to as role models. In a professional environment where there is such low female representation, it is crucial for young women to know that success is possible, a sentiment that was reiterated by both students and faculty members interviewed.

“Yale is very lucky to have a good number of simply terrific women on the physics faculty — but even then the male-to-female ratio is nowhere near unity,” said mechanical engineering major Jerry Wang ’13, who attended the conference. “The scarcity of women in physics in the first place also contributes to a negative feedback loop — prospective female physics majors are less likely to stay in the field when they don’t see many other women in their classes or at the blackboard.”

Pollack, who studied physics at a time when there were no women professors in the department, said that the lack of role models was a big factor in discouraging her from further pursuing the discipline.

“None of my professors said to me, ‘Are you thinking of going on in physics?’” she added. “So I thought, they didn’t really think I had what it would have taken to go on.”

At every rung of the academic ladder, female scientists are confronted with implicit biases that make it more difficult for them to attain the next level. As a result, the number of women role models remains low. This is the crux of the problem: as long as men outnumber women in higher education, subconscious prejudices will persist, but it’s these same biases that prevent institutions from achieving equality in the first place.

Despite the challenges that continue to confront women in science today, both faculty and students interviewed still expressed optimism for the future of female scientists. As Wang most aptly put it, “The big picture isn’t about women in science or men in science, it’s about doing good science. And good science just doesn’t happen when half the brains in the world face major systematic disadvantages entering and rising in the field.”