Women in science
A scarcity of females suggests that science, engineering is still difficult terrain for women

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs


Enrollment figures on women graduate students nationally over a 12-year period from 1983 to 1995 reveal a wide disparity between women’s participation in the “soft” and “hard” sciences.

06 June 2001 | For the first 20 years of her career, Lillian Dyck, a professor of neuropsychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, denied the gender bias she encountered in her climb up the professorial ladder.

One of the worst incidents as a junior faculty member, she recalled, was when she was asked by a higher level faculty adviser to pass one student who had plagiarized extensively on a paper and fail another who had done the same. When she refused for ethical reasons, she was shunned by the senior faculty member and gradually earned a reputation as someone who rocked the boat too much.

“That went on for eight years, but I had become myself, taken my stand and developed my strength,” she told fellow scientists, mostly women, at a national conference on women’s careers in the sciences, hosted by Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education. “That’s when all the stops came out, when I refused to do certain things that seemed to be unethical. However, that’s what seemed to create in me a greater sense of who I am.”

The mid-May conference, titled “Careers of Women in Science: Issues of Power and Control” and held at the Clark Kerr campus, was co-organized by Anne MacLachlan, a Berkeley research specialist in the Center for Studies in Higher Education, and Lorna Erwin, a professor of sociology at York University, Toronto. Women scientists from across the country gathered to share their personal experiences of gender discrimination and examine the extent to which women have obtained power and control in their scientific pursuits and working lives.

The experiences many of the speakers shared were as varied as the women themselves. But no one tale of sexism, exclusion or lost opportunity stood out over the others. Science, unlike the “softer” social sciences, humanities and education, is a bastion of sexism, they agreed. However, their experiences also told of barriers overcome, opportunities created and personal triumph.

“I was told, ordered many times, not to attend conferences, not to be a feminist, not to do all those political things as a junior faculty member, but I continued to do them,” said Dyck, echoing the sentiments of many others. “But doing what I was told not to do has brought me back and, I think, has helped me feel a sense of empowerment because in my own mind, I know I am able to make a difference.”

Like Dyck, who is half Cree, women of color face a double whammy, said MacLachlan, who is currently conducting the first comprehensive longitudinal study in the UC system of individual minority career paths and professional success. Filling a gap in knowledge about the experiences and struggles of young women trying to launch their academic science careers, MacLachlan is just one year into her survey, but shared some of the anecdotes provided by her study sample.

“These women have grade-point averages that are competitive by any measure, they would have been admitted in almost every circumstance without any affirmative action whatsoever, they went through their doctoral programs quickly, one women even received her Ph.D. before age 25,” she said. “They all had the hallmarks of successful science careers, except for one difference: for some, the emotional and spiritual experiences of going through graduate school left them drained. They reported alienation from their families (because they worked so hard) and physical symptoms. One woman, for instance, developed an ulcer that she had throughout her graduate school training.”

The statistics back up those perceptions. Female graduate science degree enrollments nationwide are rising by less than 1 percent each year, a trend that could lead to a shortage of skilled workers in future years, according to the June 2000 report, “Science and Engineering Indicators,” issued every two years by the National Science Board.

Women and minorities make up only a small part of the enrollment in graduate science and engineering programs, the report added. Only 5 percent of graduate students in science programs were black, and fewer than 4 percent were Hispanic.

“In 1999, there were only 192 women who earned Ph.D.s in physics and astronomy,” said Ira Michael Heyman, chancellor emeritus and interim director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education. “That’s only 13.4 percent of the total population in those disciplines.”

A year later, the number of women had increased to 277, or about 25.5 percent of the total population in those disciplines. “But you can see that the disparity is still large and there are many ongoing obstacles to overcome,” he said.

For most women, survival means they must deny that the biases exist. “Denial still plays a very large role in the lives of successful female scientists and accommodation plays a part too,” MacLachlan said. “Yet the women of color in my study have come to terms with it. Twenty years into the work force, they have found success in their own individual ways, drawing on their own support systems.”

She cited Berkeley’s Professional Development Program, which facilities communication between departments, as an effective support program that had contributed to the Berkeley women’s success.

Experiences of isolation, alienation and discouragement are common because there are so few women of color in the sciences, MacLachlan also reported. “The UC women’s success seems tied, in some part, to informal support networks. But there should be some kind of institutional support at every university to reinforce women’s strength and resilience. You can’t expect women to cope all by themselves.”

What needs to change? The culture itself, she and several other speakers said.

“This is not just the culture of polite, Anglo Saxon male scientists we’re talking about, but a historically built set of dictates about how you approach thinking about things and how you act and accommodate others to accomplish your goals,” MacLachlan said. “This is a very difficult thing to grasp and a very painful learning experience for many women, because they come to understand that they aren’t a part of the culture and they never will be.”


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