Science and the Gender Gap

To get a sense of how women have progressed in science, take a quick tour of the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a storied place, the site of some of the most important discoveries in modern science--starting with Ernest Lawrence's invention of the cyclotron in 1931. A generation ago female faces were rare, and even today visitors walking through the first floor of LeConte Hall will see a full corridor of exhibits honoring the many distinguished physicists who made history here, virtually all of them white males.

But climb up to the third floor and you'll see a different display. There, among the photos of current faculty members and students, are portraits of the current chair of the department, Marjorie Shapiro, and four other women whose research covers everything from the mechanics of the universe to the smallest particles of matter. A sixth woman was hired just two weeks ago. Although they're still only about 10 percent of the physics faculty, women are clearly a presence here. And the real hope may be in the smaller photos to the right: graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of them female. Every year Berkeley sends freshly minted female physics doctorates to the United States' top universities. That makes Shapiro optimistic, but also realistic. "I believe things are getting better," she says, "but they're not getting better as fast as I would like."

To women in other professions--law, publishing, even politics--academic science can sometimes seem like the world that time forgot. Decades after women began scaling the corporate ladder, female physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers are still struggling to find their place at the nation's major research universities. Although women now earn about half the graduate degrees in math and chemistry, for example, they hold only about 10 percent of the faculty jobs in those fields. "The U.S. needs as much scientific and technologic brain power as it can get," says Georgia Tech's Sue Rosser, author of "The Science Glass Ceiling." "It makes no sense to exclude half the population."

Last year former Harvard president Lawrence Summers ignited a firestorm by suggesting that a lack of innate ability might be the problem. But a report released in September from the U.S. Academy of Sciences details more likely reasons: inadequate child care, a rigid tenure clock that penalizes mothers who take time off after childbirth and a less-than-welcoming attitude among colleagues and administrators.

In fact, biology does play a role, but not in the way Summers proposed. It generally takes about five years to get a Ph.D.; young scientists are then expected to move on to one or two postdoctoral fellowships. Afterward, if they're among the very best, they'll be hired for a faculty job. That's the start of the tenure clock--generally six years. During that time, they have to show a steady research record in order to win tenure; any gaps (after giving birth, for example) could mean they get the boot. That rigid schedule forces women scientists in their late 20s and early 30s--prime childbearing years--into an excruciating choice between their love of physics or chemistry and their desire to have a family. It's a choice their male peers aren't required to make. Mary Ann Mason, dean of the graduate division at Berkeley, has been studying this issue for years and is codirector of Do Babies Matter?, a research project on the impact of family on the lives of male and female academics. The tenure system was created by men and is based on a male model that leaves women at a disadvantage, she says. Women worry that any time away from the lab will mean they lose out in the increasingly competitive race for research money. "There is this belief that if you are out of it for more than a year," she says, "you can never come back again."

Until the mid-1990s, most women scientists were on their own as they tried to work around these barriers. "When I was in graduate school," says Alice Agogino, a professor of mechanical engineering at Berkeley, "people would say there was no gender in science, no ethnicity in science. There's just good science. I was intimidated by this, but then I realized it isn't true." Gender, many women scientists say, shows up in everything from whether you work with the professor of your choice to how much lab space you get.

Though individual women may have understood what they were up against, there wasn't much of an organized effort to change things until an August day in 1994, when a group of tenured female faculty members at MIT met with physicist Robert Birgeneau, then the dean of the School of Science, to press their case that there was an institutional bias. "It was really a singular point," says Birgeneau, now the chancellor at Berkeley. Before that day, he says, it was easy to dismiss an individual woman's career problems as the result of a personality conflict. But after investigating their complaints, he concluded that the problem was systemic.

In 1999, MIT issued a groundbreaking report that showed that tenured women professors made less money and received fewer research resources than their male colleagues. The next year MIT's president, Charles Vest, convened a meeting of administrators and scientists from 25 of the most prestigious U.S. universities who issued a unanimous statement agreeing that institutional barriers prevented women from succeeding in science.

Soon after, the U.S. National Science Foundation started the Advance grant program, which gives money annually to institutions or individuals with proposals to encourage women scientists. "The country is spending a lot of money and effort educating women, a substantial brain trust, but they weren't going into faculties, teaching students and doing research," says program director Alice Hogan. Advance has given out about $100 million in grants to 31 institutions for day-care centers, mentoring and even mini-retreats for junior and senior faculty members to get to know each other better.

The beneficiaries of these efforts are women like Lorraine Sadler, a graduate student in physics at Berkeley who studies Bose Einstein condensates (intensely cold quantum states of matter) in her lab in the basement of Birge Hall. "The biggest obstacle I've had is brute force," says Sadler. "Most of the things in this lab are heavy, so I started lifting weights." She looks proudly around the sophisticated equipment that records her experiments. "I built this entire lab from an empty room," she says. Sometimes, when visiting male scientists come to the lab, they treat her as less than an equal. "I give them about two weeks to see the light," she says. Usually, that happens when a problem comes up and Sadler is the only one who can solve it. "The scales fall from their eyes," she says. "It just takes a little bit of patience for them to see that I have the qualifications to be here."

Sadler and her colleague Lauren Tompkins, a graduate student in particle physics, say they owe much to Young-Kee Kim, a former Berkeley professor who is now at the University of Chicago. "She made sure everybody knew us," says Tompkins. "She told us, 'You're going to go far'." They needed that confidence boost, especially in physics, where, Tompkins says, "physicists have a fear that any kind of change will lead to a degradation" of the field. There was social pressure as well. Tompkins recalls attending a frat party when she was a freshman. A guy came up and asked: "What are you majoring in?" When Tompkins replied "Physics," he turned on his heel, she says.

Shapiro concedes that misconceptions about science can make it difficult to keep women in the major. A male student who's in the middle of the class generally thinks he's doing OK, Shapiro says. But a female student in the same position often feels she's not good enough. "I tell them they're doing fine," says Shapiro. "You don't have to be the top student in the class to do physics." But she's also encouraged by the way the current generation of female science students reach out to each other through campus organizations like the Society of Women Engineers or the Society for Women in the Physical Sciences. "When I was a grad student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we tried to hide the fact that we were female," she says.

Beyond the support the female students provide for each other, Berkeley (like other campuses, including Georgia Tech) tries to help by offering new "family friendly" policies like tenure-clock extension after the birth of a child, reduced teaching duties for new parents and a part-time option. "I think we're on the cutting edge," says Agogino. Female students have lots of role models, including Jasmina Vujic, chair of the nuclear-engineering department. Not long ago Vujic spoke at career day at her daughter's school. Only four girls showed up for her talk about women in science and engineering, but next door, a room full of girls eagerly awaited a session on women's rights. When that speaker didn't show, Vujic invited the girls to her session. "Half of them came with me," she says with a smile. And perhaps one of them, inspired by that day, will follow her into the lab.