JOAN A. STEITZ HAS BEEN A PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR, A DEPARTMENT CHAIR, A TEACHER OF UNDERGRADUATES—AND A ROLE MODEL FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE. AS A MEMBER OF A NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES COMMITTEE ON THE BARRIERS WOMEN FACE IN ACADEMIC SCIENCE, SHE BECAME MUCH MORE AWARE OF THE SOMETIMES-SUBTLE REASONS WHY THE RANKS OF WOMEN AT HIGH LEVELS ARE SO SPARSE.
When we think of a scientist, 99.9 percent of us picture a male. It's one of the many unconscious biases—on the part of men and women—that impedes women's desire to move forward in science. It is these unintended biases, much more than any overt offenses, that hold women back.
We women scientists have been agitated since Larry Summers made comments about women and science early in 2005 that eventually cost him his job as president of Harvard University. He listed three reasons why women couldn't succeed in science. Loosely put: Their brains aren't very good at math, they don't want to work hard enough to be scientists, and maybe a small bit of adverse cultural influence plays a role.
Data from our 2006 National Academy of Sciences report Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering convincingly show that women have both the ability and the drive to be high-level scientists. So that leaves us with the (not-so-small) cultural influence. It's quite amazing how extensive this is—a large number of small disadvantages that add up to the proverbial 800-pound gorilla.
One of the most fascinating studies I read was from Wayne State University, where researchers evaluated some 300 letters of recommendation for people who successfully applied for faculty positions within a medical school. Multiple statistically significant differences emerged between letters written about women and those about men—regardless of whether the letter writer was male or female!
One stunning finding: Family situation was mentioned six times more frequently in letters for women than for men. When I first read that result, I thought, "Have I unintentionally fallen into this trap?"
The most important thing that all of us can do is recognize such unconscious biases and help bring them into the light of day. Unless people are willing to look at the data and say, "this doesn't look right," we can't begin to fix the problem. But I see encouraging signs that people, including many men, are beginning to accept the challenge.
Photo: Paul Fetters