Freeing Athena

Four new books tell of the difficulties that women pursuing careers in science and engineering still encounter.

By Alvin P. Sanoff

It has been more than three decades since the women's movement began to make its impact felt on American society, and much has changed for the better since then. Women have ascended to positions of power and influence in many institutions once regarded as male preserves. They are now movers and shakers in the U.S. Congress, in corporate America, and in many professions. Yet, despite their advances, women still face obstacles in a number of professions—including, regrettably, science and engineering. Four new books tell of the difficult path that women interested in a career in science or engineering have had to travel to fulfill their aspirations, and document the many barriers of an increasingly subtle kind they still confront.

The most provocative of the books is Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology (Cambridge University Press, $24.95). The authors, Henry Etzkowitz and Carol Kemelgor, both associated with the Science Policy Institute at the State University of New York at Purchase, and Brian Uzzi, associate professor of business and sociology at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, paint a disturbing picture of how the education system and even their families discouraged many women from pursuing their interest in science.

Those who forged ahead to study science or engineering in college or graduate school despite advice to the contrary from teachers, counselors, and parents often became discouraged along the way and turned to another field. While the proportion of bachelors' degrees in science and engineering earned by women rose to 47 percent in 1995, their share of doctorates is much lower, ranging from 40 percent in biology to 11 percent in engineering. By 1999, according to ASEE data, the number of women receiving Ph.D's in engineering rose to 18 percent. In part because of barriers that confront women in the academy, even many with doctorates do not end up as tenured faculty members. Data from the National Science Foundation show that women earned 6.3 percent of engineering doctorates in 1985, but a decade later only 2.9 percent of tenured engineering sciences faculty members were women.

Skeptics might look at such numbers and argue that they simply prove that many women chose not to go on for their doctorates for a host of personal reasons or, once having achieved a doctorate, decided that they did not want a life of teaching and research. But the authors make a convincing case that there is within the academy a macho culture that discourages women from staying the course.

The authors, whose conclusions are based on a number of studies, including interviews and focus groups with female and male graduate students as well as faculty members in five science and engineering disciplines at 10 universities, demonstrate that many female graduate students are left to fend for themselves, without the support networks and mentoring that their male counterparts enjoy. The authors argue that a "gendered apartheid system" exists in many graduate science and engineering programs.

"The academic structure, rather than aiding the passage of qualified and competent women, actively discourages them," they contend. "The tiny cuts and stigmatizing reproaches experienced in graduate school range from assumptions of devalued admission to simply not having one's comments in a research group meeting taken seriously, only to hear them accepted when repeated a few minutes later in a more confident and deeper voice, by a male counterpart."

On top of that, the authors found what they call "a strong cultural bias" in most of the science departments they studied "against women combining parenthood with a graduate career; most advisors expect students to delay having children until after the degree, but then, when is the 'right time' if a woman stays on the academic track?"

The authors tell of an electrical engineering department in which junior female faculty members said that they were left out of invitations given to young males to participate in large-scale research proposals. "The negative message this gave to one female faculty member," say the authors, " was so strong that she resigned her research position in favor of a job at a teaching college." In fact, the authors found that many women with doctorates seek employment in the private sector and in colleges that stress teaching because the environments are far more congenial than those found at research universities.

Those looking for tales of perseverance and success in the face of such obstacles can turn to The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Women in Science (Joseph Henry Press, $24.95) and Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants (Temple University Press, $27.95). Both books touch on many of the same issues discussed in far greater depth in Athena Unbound, but they do so through interviews with women who are leading scientists and engineers. Those interviewed in The Door in the Dream are members of the National Academy of Sciences, while those interviewed in Journeys represent a cross section of female scientists and engineers.

Some of the National Academy members tell of the difficulties of balancing careers with family and how that sometimes worked against them, especially in an academic setting. Judith Klinman, who in 1978 became the first female member of the chemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley, says that she chose to focus on her research and her family. "That was all the energy I had," she recalls. Looking back, she says that it is important for women in the academy to join women's support groups, especially those composed of women who are in the same field, and to exchange information.

The women interviewed for Journeys are a more heterogeneous group. While some pursued and earned a doctorate and entered the academy or government, others stopped their formal education after earning a bachelor's degree and today work in the private sector. Their stories demonstrate that there are a number of options available to female scientists other than academia.

Deborah Lynn Grubbe, for example, found satisfaction and fulfillment working as an engineer in the private sector. Grubbe, who held the position of director of engineering at E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company at the time of the interview for the book, says that she views herself as "a businessperson first who happens to be an engineer and happens to be a woman." A graduate of Purdue University with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, Grubbe says that at DuPont she has had a number of mentors, mostly men, who placed her in "environments where there were always one or two key people who really wanted to help me grow and learn."

It would seem that mentorship is a lot harder to come by in the supposedly enlightened precincts of the academy than in industry or government. In fact, Elga Wasserman, author of The Door in the Dream and holder of a doctorate in organic chemistry, found that several of the National Academy members she interviewed said that "women tend to do better in government laboratories than in universities." One interviewee, who has worked in both government and in research universities, said that government laboratories give women more freedom to move ahead and there is no "tight academic promotion time frame" to worry about. The last of the four books, History of Women in the Sciences: Readings from Isis (The University of Chicago Press, $20), consists of a collection of essays from a highly regarded journal that is devoted to the history of science and its cultural influences. The essays deal with such topics as women's exclusion from science and the general lack of recognition for the contributions women have made, providing some context for the issues of today. But the essays are likely to be of greatest interest to specialists.

The books, taken as a whole, provide some grounds for encouragement. Women clearly have made substantial strides over the past 30 years. But while they have come a long way, there is still much that needs to be done to truly level the playing field in science and engineering. This is especially true of America's research universities, institutions to which change comes exceedingly slowly. Alvin P. Sanoff is a higher education consultant and freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.

"The academic structure, rather than aiding the passage of qualified and competent women, actively discourages them."

Alvin P. Sanoff is a higher education consultant and freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.


More Toolbox articles: Teaching , Calendar, Research, On Campus , Marketplace, Grants