Women Scientists Press for Parity

 

By Neha Sud '05
 

If a man takes time off from work to be with his kids, he's considered to be a great dad, says Robert Drago, professor of women's studies at Pennsylvania State University. Women who do the same are told that they are not serious about their careers. "I mean why would you be up at 3 a.m. breast-feeding when you could be sitting there doing research on your laptop?" a deadpan Drago asked an audience at Colby in July.

The group laughed knowingly. After all, this group came to Colby from all over the country for the 2002 Workshop on Gender Issues in the Sciences, organized by Colby's Forum for Women in Science, in its 10th year now.

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Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Bevier, shown teaching, was a member of the gender-issue workshop committee
This year's event attracted Maine scientists, Kentucky professors, Florida psychologists and others, all of whom learned more about the challenges faced by women in science-based fields.

Issues raised at the conference included the conflict between the biological clock and the tenure clock. Women in science often delay having children until they're granted tenure, and by that time it may be too late.

Whether to have a child isn't necessarily the first decision women in the sciences have to make, though. Often, they first have to choose which is more important-a spouse or a job.

Statistics show that 90 percent of female physicists are married to male scientists. Thus, when an organization only has one opening, the spouse, who is often in the same field, is left at sea. A potential solution: "Some liberal arts colleges have hired staff to network with the community and within the state to see if there are job possibilities for the partner," said Bets Brown, a Colby biology research scientist.

Alternatively, the couple could share a faculty position. In recent years, Colby has had three faculty couples share joint appointments.

Women science professors who manage to secure a position must still overcome several obstacles. Perhaps the most controversial of these is student evaluations and how they are affected by the gender of the professor.

Susan Basow, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology at Lafayette College, has been researching this topic for 20 years. Her conclusion, presented at the Colby conference: in the natural sciences, male professors of similar ability are rated higher than women by students. "Women have to demonstrate not only typical professorial behavior," Basow said, "but also have to be nurturing and caring. . . . However, when they are too feminine, they're discredited as not being knowledgeable authority figures, but when too professional, they are not considered feminine enough."

Catherine Didion, director of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), recommends peer mentoring by older women faculty members within a department. Didion has spent several years with United Nations organizations and with AWIS researching the issues discussed at the conference. Her aim is to create a working environment for women where they can have a "whole life," with no sacrifice of the professional or the personal.

According to the Association for Women in Science, only 19.5 percent of science and engineering faculties at four-year colleges and universities are women. The numbers are increasing (32.9 percent for assistant professors) but some say there is a way to go.

"When I first came here [in 1991], there were only two other women in the sciences," said Julie Millard, associate professor of chemistry at Colby. "We were twenty-five years behind our time." Currently 11 members of the Colby science faculty are women.