When Fay Ajzenberg-Selove began her days as a Penn Physics professor in 1973, some of her male colleagues were less than thrilled to be working alongside her. "They made remarks to me, they tried to put me down in all sorts of ways," she said of some of the men in her department. After all, her complaints of Penn's gender discrimination had resulted in a state-sponsored investigation into gender equity at the University -- which found a case of discrimination and eventually led to Ajzenberg-Selove's appointment as a full professor. And though she said that the working relationship between men and women in the sciences has changed, things still aren't equal in the hard sciences. For example, in the Physics Department, only three of 37 professors are female. The numbers aren't much better for the Chemistry Department; there are only two tenured female faculty members out of a total of around 25. Many are quick to point out that these numbers are low because, decades ago, there weren't very many female graduate students preparing to go into academia. But a recent progress report by a special committee investigating gender equity issues at Penn reported last month that even with the low candidate pool taken into account, females were still underrepresented in the hard sciences at the University. "These are the departments where we clearly have disproportionately few women," Committee co-Chair and Biochemistry Professor Phoebe Leboy said. And according to some women, the overwhelming number of men in some departments presents a tense and competitive working environment -- prompting many women to choose less research-intensive schools instead Penn.
Being one of the few female faculty members in a department can take its toll, according to several of them. "In some departments, just the sheer lack of numbers of women makes it unfriendly," Leboy said. Added Madeleine Joullie, the first female Chemistry professor at Penn, "You have to realize you are not a man and you can't be one of them." And another female member of a department with a disproportionate number of males said that the gender disparity sometimes ends up favoring the men. "The males get greater resources," she said. But many of the women working in such departments have spent their careers in male-dominated atmospheres -- and said they might not notice the effects of the gender disparity. "It took me years to actually notice that might play a role," Biochemistry and Biophysics Professor Jeanne Myers said. "You become accustomed to it. I just haven't gotten into that discussion with people." "I think women are unfortunately used to being in small numbers in science departments," added University President Judith Rodin, who specializes in Psychology. Rodin -- a scientist herself -- said that even though gender discrimination may no longer be overt, it's still harmful to female scientists. "As I think about now, if people are holding these attitudes and not expressing them, maybe it's worse.... At least we knew who our enemies were," Rodin said. "I can't count the number of times that I said, 'Why I am doing this, is it worth it,'" she added. With low numbers of female scientists in tenured teaching positions, a disturbing precedent might be set for students or junior faculty members within a department. "You have all of these women graduate students, and they see too few women faculty, and it imparts the message that this is too hard for women," Leboy said. Ajzenberg-Selove said that she makes sure she is available to young, female Physics students. "It is my pleasure and my duty," she said.
Old Boys Network
In academia, there is a universally recognized mantra: publish or perish. For a scientist, publication requires an extraordinary number of hours at a lab station, behind a microscope or at the calculator. Ajzenberg-Selove, for one, said that her job requires 90 hours of research, writing and teaching each week. But for many -- women and men alike -- the burden of research often conflicts with the demands of a family, and the family ultimately wins out. "That is an issue for women, and it will never go away," Biology Professor Nancy Bonini said. "What we want is the person that is most productive," Biology Undergraduate Chair Ingrid Waldron said. "There's the conflict then between your work life and your home life. That's a broader issue. It hits women harder." And even for the hardest-working women, the glass ceiling still exists. Ajzenberg-Selove said that in her department, many of the elder male faculty members took the competition of a female physicist as an assault on their masculinity. "It's the old boys network," she said. "[Some male faculty] feel that their manhood is degraded by a woman that is better than them," she added. "The perception is that sciences are a man's field. It's their turf," Leboy continued. "You can see it almost every time you look at a conference organized in the sciences.... Very often, even today, all the speakers will be male."
Williams College Chemistry Professor Deborah Weiss left a large university like Penn for the smaller, less research-intensive environment of a Massachusetts liberal arts school. When she came to Williams, she thought the less competitive nature of the school might give her more time to raise a family than she would have at a research institution. "There is the thought that it might not be as work-intensive," she said. "I still think it is less cutthroat here and it's a little easier, although it's still difficult." Weiss added that several of her colleagues at research institutions had to give up the opportunity to expand their family to stay competitive. "They just didn't think they could manage their job and a second child," she said. In the sciences at liberal arts schools, the gender gap doesn't seem to be as great as in larger institutions. At Vassar College, the Chemistry Department is half female. And at Pomona College in California, one-quarter of the Physics faculty is female -- compared to Penn's 7.4 percent. According to Vassar Physics Professor Cindy Schwartz, women might be attracted to liberal arts schools over research institutions because of the greater emphasis on teaching. "I think it's probably because the universities really do put a much bigger emphasis on the research piece, and I think it's harder for women in the sciences," she said. "We've got that glass ceiling in a male-dominated field," Schwartz noted.
Narrowing the Gap
How to attract and retain female scientists remains a pressing issue for Penn and its peers. About 30 years ago, Penn enacted a formal affirmative action policy that mandated that when selecting between two equally qualified candidates, the minority or woman should be selected. But according to Rodin, this is the only formal, University-wide mechanism to bring women to Penn. Like any position, the overall goal of searching for professors is to bring the most qualified person to the University. But Leboy said that "for whatever reason, [departments] seem to end up concluding that these people are male." Leboy added that the individual mindset of the department is the single most important factor in bringing women to Penn. "There are some out there who don't want to listen," she noted. Some women said that the problem of gender disparity begins at the lower level. "How do we attract female students into Chemistry graduate programs?" Chemistry Department Chairman Hai-Lung Dai wondered. "This is a complex issue." But in the end, several said that Penn simply is not doing enough to attract women. "I just want equal opportunity. It's not [some departments'] primary concern," Ajzenberg-Selove said. "It's a huge question that nobody has an answer to."Comments powered by Disqus
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