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  April 30, 2001

Glass Ceiling Persists for Women Scientists

Although substantial gains have been made, significant problems still remain for women in science, according to an author who has studied the lives of eminent women scientists.

"While the external barriers have virtually disappeared - very few department heads will say they don't want female graduate students or that a woman can't get a job," says Elga Wasserman, "the inner assumptions are still all around us, and in some ways they're harder to fight."

Wasserman, a successful scientist, lawyer and author, made these observations during a presentation titled "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Myths and Realities for Women Scientists." She gave the address to a group of about 25 faculty members, mostly women, in South Campus on April 25.

"The country needs to tap all the available talent in the sciences in order to compete in the world," she said. "If we're to do that, we have to diversify the pool, both as to minorities and as to gender."

She said myths about women scientists abound and they lead to complacency. These myths include the notions that the problems are now solved and the playing field is equal; that women don't like science or can't do it, or that they can do science but can't have a family at the same time; and that there are not enough women 'in the pipeline'.

"Women love science, they can do science, but they don't get to the top of the profession" she said. "They still encounter many outdated attitudes."

Wasserman said the argument that there are insufficient women in the pipeline has a long history.

"In 1968, I was asked to oversee the admission of undergraduate women to Yale College and tell the president what needed to be done," she said. "I told him, 'it doesn't matter much about bathtubs and full-length mirrors, but it's very important having an integrated faculty.' I was told the university couldn't get women faculty in science."

That argument is still widely used today, although many more women are earning doctorates in science.

Even assuming a 10-year time lag between achieving a doctorate and earning tenure, the figures are still disproportionate, she said. Nationally, in 1985, 16 percent of the doctorates in physical science went to women, but in 1995, only 6.4 percent of faculty with tenure in physical science were women.

Although today the non-tenured faculty ranks tend to reflect the gender distribution among the current pool of doctorates, she added, the proportion of women is lowest at the most prestigious universities and women in non-tenured ranks tend to stay there much longer than men.

A report on gender issues in the sciences prepared by MIT and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, has also found inequalities in the space and the salaries women receive in many places.

"At least people are now beginning to say 'maybe the playing field is not equal and we'd better look at it'," Wasserman said.

She cited the case of a neuroscientist who sent out two identical CVs - one in a man's name, the other in a woman's. The scientist received far more positive responses to the one in the male name, she said.

Wasserman noted that women are hindered in their careers by gender stereotypes that are still prevalent. Most women are expected to be less assertive, more conformist, and modest about their achievements and their talents, she said. They tend to lack self-confidence, and they feel guilty about shortchanging their families as a result of their career commitments.

Women are also often afraid to ask for what they need. "They take what's offered and still feel - because of our history - grateful for where they are," she said. "The worst that can happen is that people will say no" to a request.

Wasserman said she undertook her study of women elected to the National Academy of Sciences in order to learn about their coping skills. The study was published last year as The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women in Science.

She said the NAS members shared certain traits: They were all highly talented and well educated, and were passionate and persistent about their work. They were not handicapped by the internal barriers that plague most women. "They seemed to be able to ignore or deflect negative messages," she said, describing them as having a 'Teflon personality'. They were also independent, willing to take risks, and didn't dwell on setbacks.

Wasserman said women have to be more focused, determined and persistent than men in order to succeed in science. "They are overburdened at home by family barriers, and at work because there are few of them."

She noted that women continue to have a larger share of family care and responsibilities, while at work there is pressure on female academics to advise undergraduates, serve on committees, and respond to other demands on their time that handicap their professional progress.

Wasserman said institutions and individuals must both address the issues. "Flexible solutions have to be forged by institutions to address work/family issues," she said, "and women have to learn to overcome internal barriers."

Among the 'how you can cope' advice she offered: keep in mind where you want to be 10 years hence and assess, 'will this get me closer?' don't let others decide what's best for you; and set priorities, because you cannot do it all.

She suggested that institutions should offer a range of support for faculty members, especially those with families. "Just like you get a course catalog, there has to be a family support option catalog with day care opportunities, financial help, part-time opportunities - and you pick from them," she said.

She advised women looking for an academic job to choose an institution that is 'female-friendly'. "Look at the turnover rate," she said. "You want to go where women are happy."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

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