The school wasn't being aggressive enough to identify and actively solicit women with the credentials to compete for the jobs, she says.
"Although young women have more opportunities [than in the past], progress in getting to the top hasn't changed," says Seidman, a geneticist and HHMI investigator at Harvard Medical School. "The glass ceiling is more like cement."
A few institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been seriously studying the difficulties faced by women scientists in academia. While institutions take a look inside, a small cluster of women scientists have found their way into leadership positions at places like Princeton University and the Whitehead Institute. How did they do it and what will it take for others to follow?
From Coast to Coast
At Caltech, which has more than 280 professors of varying rank, just 31 (11 percent) are women, according to a survey of its faculty released last December. These women, the survey reports, are paid less and have lower satisfaction at work than their male peers. Over half the female respondents said they were dissatisfied with or had reservations about the process for getting tenurethat official university stamp of approval and job securitycompared with just 19 percent of the men.
About seven years ago, an MIT task force on women in science began studying the university's work climate. The team's 1999 report was bleak. Fifteen female scientists had tenure at MIT, compared with 197 men. Women were overlooked for jobs, paid less, given less lab space and assigned the worst teaching loads. Why did they put up with it? "Basically, these were science junkies," says MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, one of the study's authors. "Their passion for science was over the top, and that allowed them to endure some pretty hard and lonely times."
In fact, no matter what the school's size or status, female faculty continue to face classic challenges: cracking the upper echelons of fields dominated by men, balancing career and family and fighting the chronic battle against unequal pay. Some respond by finding other careers. "We've lost some awfully good talent," says microbiologist Rita R. Colwell, who became the first female director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1998. According to NSF statistics, women currently earn roughly 35 percent of science and engineering doctoral degrees. Many of those women, however, opt out of academics, when they look down a long, competitive road that often favors men. "They don't see a level playing field," Colwell says.
Since the widely publicized MIT report was issued, Hopkins says, the tangible inequitiesin salary, space allotments and administrative positionshave been corrected. Less-tangible biases, however, have been harder to erase. New reports released by MIT in March point to marginalization, for example female faculty being excluded from high-level decision making. Still, she says, the ranks of female faculty have grown by 50 percent (bringing MIT up to Caltech's 1 woman for every 10 men). At least a dozen women now work in science and engineering administration. "You've got to get women in positions of power, where they can offer support from above," Hopkins says.
Hold the Door Open
Fields with plenty of senior women faculty, such as molecular biology, tend to attract far more female graduate students than male-dominated fields, such as physics. It's as though female leaders open the door, allowing others to follow. "The rich get richer," says former HHMI investigator Shirley M. Tilghman, who recently became the first female president of Princeton University (see "Advocating for Women").
She points to x-ray crystallography, a field with a fair number of women. Decades ago, prominent x-ray crystallographer and Nobel laureate Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin trained women, who then went out and trained women, and so on, leading to today's vibrant field, with many female faculty. The same trend holds true in Tilghman's own specialty, mouse genetics. "There were great female founders in the field in the early 20th century who inspired generations of women, creating opportunities for women to thrive and reach National Academy of Sciences status," Tilghman says. "These were role models, catalysts." Unfortunately, she adds, the "female factor" has yet to reach physics, computer science and a variety of other fields.
Following in MIT's footsteps, Caltech's December report on female faculty offered some tangible suggestions for campus life, such as increasing the proportion of female faculty to 25 percent over the next decade, more carefully consideringand explainingsalary and tenure decisions and generally improving the work environment. Biologist Marianne Bronner-Fraser, chair of faculty at Caltech, says the report has prompted the school's academic divisions to adopt a formal mentoring process, designed to help both female and male assistant professors navigate the tenure track. Each division chair has also been asked to outline strategies for better recruiting and retaining female faculty. Finally, to make Caltech more family-friendly, a new committee will address childcare concerns, planning ways to help faculty, postdocs and graduate students gain access. "There are other issues that must also be addressed, but we are trying to take them in turn," Bronner-Fraser says.
Slow the Tenure Clock
Many say that schools could do more by giving overextended parents a valuable gifttime. While the tenure process can be stressful for any junior faculty member, new mothersalready exhausted from coping with various other responsibilitiescan find the process overwhelming. How much can you accomplish in 24 hours?
"It's not that women approach tenure any differently than men do," remarks Tilghman. "The problem is that your most likely child-bearing years and your tenure-track years are the same. My sense is that the shorter the tenure clock, the more intense the problem." Tilghman, a single mother of two, has pledged to review Princeton's tenure process. Others have also suggested extending postdoctoral funding for soon-to-be or new moms.
The most successful female scientists often have mentors to thank. Colwell calls her (male) undergraduate adviser "a hero." Some 30 years ago, when her department chairman told an ambitious Colwell that he wouldn't "waste a fellowship" on a woman, she turned to her adviser, who promptly offered a genetics slot in his own lab. That left her with a powerful lesson: "Never give up," Colwell says. "If one opportunity falls through, find another."
Success stories like Colwell's suggest that women can, indeed, find their way in sciencewith the right attitude. "I was stubborn and determined and sometimes angry, and I was just going to have this career," Colwell remarks. Tilghman attributes much of her own success to selective inattention. "I went through most of my career with massive blinders on," she says. "I didn't allow myself to see anyone trying to discourage me, actively or subtly." Indeed, she recommends that younger scientists brush right past callous remarks or minor annoyances, saving battles for post-tenure times. Molecular biologist Judith Kimble, an HHMI investigator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, echoes that sentiment. "Don't think about being a woman," she advises. "Don't let it be an issue. Think about being a scientist."
Optimism helps. Former HHMI investigator Susan L. Lindquist, who last October became director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that faithand just a general optimismcarried her over the bumps in the scientific road. "I have a fundamental belief that most people are genuinely trying to do their best, and they may merely be unaware when they're inconsiderate or inappropriate," says Lindquist. "So over the years, if unfortunate incidents happened, I just licked my wounds and kept on going. I also worked like hell."
Looking back, Lindquist says she wishes she'd sought out a mentoror at least female faculty friendsfor inspiration and guidance. "It never occurred to me to talk with other faculty and get some advice," she says. "I felt I had to do it on my own." Today, Lindquist makes a point of mentoring women rising through the ranks. "Over the last 10 years, I've realized I can make a world of difference for other women." Some women approach her after seminars, others call. In just half an hour, she can offer empathy and practical pointers. "Don't hesitate to seek that kind of advice," she suggests. "Take the lessons women have learned and let them help you."
In the end, the best approach for ambitious scientists is a practical one, these women say. Do what you love. Ignore minor irritations. Fight for important changes. Harvard's Seidman suggests a focus on the process: What procedures are in place to actively recruit women for positions of power? Who is giving presentations at "grand rounds," for example, and how are the speakers chosen?
Finally, be realistic. When a female graduate student comes into Tilghman's office, anxious that she won't be able to juggle a normal family life and a scientific career, Tilghman hesitates. True, her heart goes out to the student. But she sprinkles her encouragement with caveats, keeping in mind all the free timeoften with her kidsthat she gave up to reach this point in her career. "To succeed at a high level in any profession requires some sacrifice," Tilghman says. "You have to be prepared to give up somethingor be satisfied with lesser achievement. There's no free lunch here."
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
June 2002, pages 20-25.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute