Women in Science – What to Do Next?

Cornelia Dean has written a very interesting article for the New York Times about the things people are doing to change the current situation concerning the underrepresentation of Women in Science in academia. It continues on from the discussion we were having after the September release of the report by the National Academy of Science on the issue.

The key point under discussion? From the article:

Since the 1970s, women have surged into science and engineering classes in larger and larger numbers, even at top-tier institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where half the undergraduate science majors and more than a third of the engineering students are women. Half of the nation’s medical students are women, and for decades the numbers have been rising similarly in disciplines like biology and mathematics.


Yet studies show that women in science still routinely receive less research support than their male colleagues, and they have not reached the top academic ranks in numbers anything like their growing presence would suggest.

In fact, it is only in the social, behavioral or life sciences that the proportion of women full professors has risen into double digits – 15 percent or so. Something goes wrong. What is it?

at each step on the academic ladder, more women than men leave science and engineering.

The current article reports on a number of gatherings on various campuses – conferences organised to network, share, and brainstorm a bit on the issue. There are interviews with several people, and experiences and anecdotes are shared. Very much worth your time to read. Discussed are a wide range of topics, the most central being that it is still the case that women are judged by different standards than men. Even though often times it might seem to be something as simple as what to wear to a meeting – it makes a difference. These things all add up. Other things mentioned are the two-body problem, mentoring, letters of recommendation, children and motherhood, and negotiating skills, among others.

I’ll let you read the article, but do come back and let us know what you think. We’ve been through a lot of this discussion before, so one aspect I’d like to hear about is the following: What are you doing about the issue in your own sphere of influence? Are there constructive things that can be done? It does not matter how big or small (like just talking about it, for a start). Every bit helps (including just raising one’s awareness of one’s actions and words – and the impact they might have – and I mean this whether you’re male or female of course).

It seems to me that the biggest problem in all of these “diversity issues” (the general issue of the underrepresented) is a sort of cultural inertia in each field. The matters -in hiring, retention, day-to-day happenings- are perceived as some sort of problem that will be dealt with by administrative tools (by Deans and Chairs and the like), while the rest of us should just get on with our business of teaching and doing research. Talking about it makes some people (on all sides) uncomfortable, and others find it a waste of time.

Well, unless we change the culture and attitudes right at ground level – in our departments – nothing will change much in the long term. There’s only so much the administrative tools can achieve. So where do we start? And once the conversations have been had, what next?

At this point, I’ll stop babbling. Although I can’t resist at this point mentioning the upcoming Undergraduate Women in Physics conference that will be held here at USC January 13th to 14th 2007. Amy Cassidy and Katie Mussack (two graduate students here in Physics) decided to take matters into their own hands and do something last year when they organised the first of these. They wanted to help women undergraduates interested in physics to get together, network, share, and learn more about current research, graduate school, resources, and careers in physics in general. It’s being run for a second time this year, and this time they’ve got some of our undergraduate physics majors, as well as some more graduate students to help out. The event looks set to be even more valuable and fun than last time.

Katie and Amy have mentioned that they’re looking to help other people form their own local groups to reproduce this sort of idea all around the country and beyond. So get in touch with them through the website.


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