As a child, Sarah Pfatteicher wanted to be an astronaut. By the time she started college, her vision changed: She decided to become a brilliant physicist, so brilliant that NASA would beg her to take frequent trips on a space shuttle.
Ms. Pfatteicher (pronounced FAW-ticker) earned double majors in math and physics at Smith College, putting her squarely in the much-talked-about "science pipeline." But in her case, it led to a doctorate in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Needless to say, NASA hasn't called.
If there is such a thing as a Ph.D. pipeline in the sciences, it seems to be equipped with a powerful female filtration system. Despite much progress in the last 20 years, very few women reach the highest levels of the field. If you threw a party for every professor and associate professor from every natural-science and engineering department from every university and four-year college in the country, you'd have a logistical nightmare. You would also have a crowd where men outnumbered women by more than six to one.
The disparity goes beyond mere headcounts. In 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology blew the whistle on itself in a much-publicized report announcing that women at the university were "underpaid," had "unequal access to the resources," and were "excluded from any substantial power." (See an article from The Chronicle, April, 2, 1999.) Earlier this year, administrators from nine top-tier universities (including MIT, and Harvard and Stanford Universities) gathered for a summit on gender equity on science. The not-so-startling conclusion: "Barriers still exist for women faculty."
Progress is in evidence. In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 35 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering went to women, up from 28 percent in 1990. And while men far outnumber women at the full-professor rank, the gap is closing at the level of assistant professor, where men in science and engineering now outnumber women by a mere 1.6 to 1, according to the National Science Foundation. But break that number down by field and the differences emerge: The ratio of male to female assistant professors is likely to be relatively balanced in the life sciences, where female scientists tend to earn their Ph.D.'s, and is likely to be tilted toward men in the physical sciences and engineering, where men continue to earn significantly more doctorates than women.
No simple answers
Sexual discrimination is an obvious and easy explanation for the gender gap in science. In this case, however, any simple answer is doomed to fail, says Yu Xie, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Mr. Xie (pronounced SHE-uh) has studied gender issues at every stage of the scientific career, from seventh-grade math classes to senior-faculty appointments. In his view, the shortage of women in the sciences has "deep social, cultural, and economic roots." In other words, it's a long story.
Indeed, it would take an entire book to describe the many factors that contribute to the gender gap in science. (Mr. Xie and Kimberly Shauman have just finished a draft of that book -- Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes is slated to be published this year by Harvard University Press.) For now, suffice it to say that the path from high school to the upper echelons of science is much more complex than any pipeline. Perhaps a busy city street would be a better metaphor. There are many intersections, signals, and potholes. There's also more than one way to get to the final destination.
To be sure, sexism is a potential roadblock. "Sexism isn't nearly as common as it used to be, but old habits die hard," says Sue Weiler, a research associate at Whitman College and former executive director of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography.
Twenty years ago, Ms. Weiler got a shock when she proudly told a male colleague about her first grant. "He scowled and told me I had no right to submit the proposal," she says. In his view, she was stealing food from men who had families to support. She responded to this "dilemma" by raking in many more grants in the following years, and nobody ever again mentioned the underfed men.
Cindy Lee, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, believes discrimination is common, but it's not always about such obvious traits as gender or race. While she says she hasn't always received the respect she thinks she deserves, she chalks it up to her wispy voice and youngish face. In her experience, soft-spoken, young-looking men also seem to have trouble getting ahead in science. "I've noticed that the sooner your hair starts falling out, the greater your scientific success," she says.
Ms. Pfatteicher, who is now the assistant dean for academic affairs in the engineering department at Wisconsin, says discrimination against female scientists may not always be crippling, but it plants doubt in their minds: "If they don't get a job, they expend mental energy wondering if it had anything to do with their gender."
It certainly wasn't sexism that pushed Ms. Pfatteicher out of physics. As a student at a women's college, she never felt singled out for her gender. Years later, she still wonders exactly why she left the physics track. "I didn't have many positive role models, and I started getting this vision of science being very isolating," she says. "I pictured myself working in a lab at the end of a desolate hallway."
Often, the dark view of science pops up much earlier in life. "Very few girls leave high school wanting to be scientists," Mr. Xie says. His research shows that girls in high school take just as many science and math classes as boys, and the girls tend to get even better grades. Still, the girls receive a strong message that science is a school subject, not a potential career. "Boys and girls understand at a very early age what is a male career and what is a female career," he says.
Perceptions can change once a woman gets to college. Mr. Xie has found that a large number of women who earn science degrees actually started in non-science majors. If universities want to bolster the number of women majoring in science and engineering, perhaps they should start by raiding the English and history departments.
Once they get their degrees, many women take detours for the sake of their families. Men have kids and spouses too, but the largest family burdens tend to fall on women, Mr. Xie says. For one thing, husbands tend to be relatively older and further along in their careers when children arrive. And while the wives of some male scientists may become homemakers or take part-time jobs, women are much more likely to marry other scientists who, needless to say, aren't always much help around the house.
Ms. Weiler (who is married to a scientist) points to a favorite quote by the 19th-century mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaia: "All these stupid but unpostponable everyday affairs are a serious test of my patience, and I begin to understand why men treasure good, practical housewives so highly. Were I a man, I'd choose myself a beautiful little housewife who'd free me from all this."
Ms. Weiler then cut our interview short to take her cats to the vet.
Closing the gap
Societal norms, a lack of role models, discrimination, husbands, kids, and cats: Anybody who wants to bring gender equity to science has many issues to tackle. Schools like MIT can provide more support to their female professors, but the gender gap goes far beyond campus policies, Mr. Xie says. Any real changes will have to involve society as a whole, and any real progress will take considerable time, he says.
Science is one of the most prestigious careers around, and women deserve their place at the bench. Above all, science needs their talent, Mr. Xie says. He doesn't believe that women have a special approach to research. But very few people, he says -- perhaps one in 1,000 -- have the mettle to be good scientists. Whenever one of them drops out, he says, everybody loses.