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Change takes place one department at a time

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on March 9, 2005
While a doctoral student in chemical physics at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, I was delighted to be part of chemistry department that had an unusually large number of female faculty members and, not surprisingly, an unusually large number of female graduate students. Though I wasn't there long enough to learn the history of the department or determine the likelihood that it would remain an "unusual" place, it was a clear example of the support and development of women scientists. (On a personal note, I might add that one of these women was a bridesmaid at my wedding, since she was a dear friend to me and my wife; after receiving her Ph.D. from Minnesota, she went on to work as a research scientist at The University of Chicago.)

The point I would like to emphasize is that university departments, as much or more so than university presidents, are the gatekeepers of the academy. If the departments are not committed to finding ways to attract and retain women scientists then there is no changing the patterns we observe. Opportunity and sponsorship are critical to any scholar or researcher, and those who are less represented (and do not conform to stereotypes) are less likely to gain access and, more importantly, less likely to see the career trajectory as attractive.

Many women who are successful in the sciences have found themselves having to be "super" women, able to take on all the requirements of the male gender role for the laboratory while still having to skillfully play the female gender role away from the workplace. In other words, until male-dominated departments begin to imagine and accept alternative ways of playing the role of laboratory scientist, women have to adapt by extending their burdens or sacrificing their opportunity to play the female gender role (e.g., having fewer or no children).

Nonetheless, women have been awarded Nobel Prizes in the sciences (Marie Curie, Maria Geoppert-Mayer, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Irene Joliot-Curie, Linda Buck, Gertrude Elion, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Barbara McClintock, Rosalyn Yalow), demonstrating that the most supreme scientific achievements are not the sole possession of the male form of the species. And given the historical differences in the timing of these achievements (i.e., no woman has received the Prize in physics or chemistry since 1964 while no woman had received it in medicine prior to 1977), I would be inclined to believe that the patterns of sponsorship among elites in the disciplines are important in explaining which laboratory opportunities appear to be attractive to women.

As a final note on university and departmental policies and the sponsorship of women scientists, a look at history is instructive. When she did her work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize, Maria Geoppert-Mayer was employed at Argonne National Laboratory, not The University of Chicago (where she was a voluntary professor), because Chicago chose to hire her husband. The university's observance of its nepotism rules prevented the hiring of Mrs. Mayer as well as Mr. Mayer. As with Johns Hopkins and Columbia before Chicago, Maria Geoppert-Mayer pursued her scholarly passion without receiving a regular faculty appointment because her husband had been recruited and hired first. It was not until 1960, at the University of California, San Diego, that she received a regular faculty appointment. (She received the Nobel Prize in 1963.) Clearly, we do not have a long history of seeing women as equally or more desirable potential faculty members, even when they are the best and brightest in the world.

In sum, there is too much blaming the victim and finding fault with individuals when, in reality, the social organization of the disciplines and the academy implicitly communicates that women are not important enough to ensure that they are not alienated by traditional values, norms, and expectations of the "community" of laboratory scientists. Without more people like Princeton's Shirley Tilgham, especially at the department level, social reorganization will continue to be slow and increased participation in laboratory science by women will continue to be impeded.
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 Change takes place one department at a time by Ross Mitchell on March 9, 2005
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