Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Women in Science: Identifying the obstacles

... [I]n government agencies, at scientific organizations and on university campuses, female scientists are asking why, and wondering what they can do about [the fact that more women than men leave science and engineering]. The Association for Women in Science, the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council are among the groups tackling these issues. In just the past two months, conferences have been held at Columbia University and the City University of New York graduate center. Harvard has a yearlong lecture series on “Women, Science and Society.”

This fall, female scientists at Rice University here gathered promising women who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to help them learn skills that they will need to deal with the perils of job hunting, promotion and tenure in high-stakes academic science.

“The reality is there are barriers that women face,” said Kathleen S. Matthews, the dean of natural sciences at Rice, who spoke at the meeting’s opening dinner. “There are circles and communities of engagement where women are by and large not included.”

From this NYTimes story by Cornelia Dean. There are lots of subtle sources of discrimination, and it's important to identify them. This article points to some of them. In combating "unspoken, even unconscious sexism", the article brings up mentoring again and again as particularly important for women.

Sidebar: In a must-read post, Zuska offers a great lesson on stereotypes and subtexts.

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... In her keynote speech at the Rice conference, Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Davis, mentioned several occasions when timely intervention from a thesis adviser, department chairman or other mentor turned things around for her.

Joan Steitz, a professor of molecular biophysics at Yale and a member of the academy’s expert panel, said the same thing in one of the Harvard lectures this month. It is crucial to have “someone up your sleeve who will save you,” Dr. Steitz said.

But there is evidence that women do not receive this support to the degree men do.

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman.

Also, Dr. Steitz said, “For women, the things that were talked about more frequently were how well they were trained, what good teachers they were and how well their applications were put together.” When the subject of the letter was male, she said, the big topics were research skills and success in the lab.

“Ever since I read this paper and I sit down to write a letter of recommendation,” Dr. Steitz said, “I think, ‘Oh, have I fallen into this trap?’ ”

If mentors don’t present themselves, women may have to create them, Dr. Steitz said.

She cited “Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists” (Yale University Press, 2006), a book by Ellen Daniell, a former assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In the book Dr. Daniell describes a group of female scientists who have been meeting regularly for more than 20 years to talk about their professional triumphs and travails, turning themselves into mentors and role models for one other.

As Dr. Niemeier told the women at Rice, “If your adviser is not going to help you with a strong network, form a network of your own. Pick out some women you would like to get to know, who have scholarly reputations, and get to know them.”