The cold, winter air in Boston became heated the day that Lawrence Summers spoke at the National Bureau of Economics Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce last January. In front of a group of academics, the 27th Harvard president had just suggested that the paucity of women in science was attributable to innate gender differences in ability.
|Windsor Morgan brings his concerns about women's experience in science to the classroom.
Some gripped their chairs in stunned silence. Others, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology, stormed from their seats, enraged. The ensuing controversy swept across the nation like a tornado, stirring strong emotions and impassioned attacks along the way. But while Summers’ comments riled many, they also raised an important question: Where are all the women in science and engineering fields?
Summers’ inflammatory remarks quickly became a hot topic at Dickinson. In the spring, The Clarke Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Contemporary Issues sponsored a Common Hour panel discussion to address the issue, Where are the Women? The Gender Divide in Science. Panelists included associate professors Amy Witter of chemistry, Teresa Barber and Marie Helweg-Larsen of psychology, and Windsor Morgan of physics and astronomy. Susan Feldman, professor of philosophy, was moderator.
“The Common Hour showed that [Dickinson] can respond to a hot topic in the world relatively quickly,” Helweg-Larsen says. “After all, ‘engage the world’ means engage it while it’s happening.”
As Summers noted, the gender gap in science is striking—even, to some extent, at Dickinson. “Considering overall that 50 percent of students here are women, you’d expect that their representation in science fields would be relatively equal,” says Morgan. “But it’s not [in all science majors].”
In physics and geology, for example, Morgan found that about 30 percent of majors in either field are women. “And both the physics and geology departments at Dickinson have no women faculty members right now,” Morgan says.
But in many ways, the prevalence of women in science at Dickinson bucks the national trend. For nearly 40 years, until her 2002 retirement, Priscilla Laws was a leader in the physics department. And a ratio of one-third female majors in physics is high compared to the national average: a 2001 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics ranked Dickinson second out of 42 peer institutions in the number of women physics majors.
“It’s also true that, over the last few years, the majority of science majors in general has been women,” says Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman. As Morgan noted during his Common Hour presentation, women are actually overrepresented at Dickinson in fields such as biology, chemistry and environmental science.
“Overall, our representation [of women in the sciences] is pretty good,” Weissman adds. “Women are not only present in our science departments but very active in our initiatives.” Both of the college’s popular workshop programs—Workshop Physics and Workshop Calculus—were led by women, Laws and Professor of Mathematics Nancy Baxter Hastings (see story on Hastings, page 24). Women comprise half of the faculty in chemistry, and Professor Janet Wright chairs the biology department.
“So in some ways, we’ve done very well,” comments Weissman. “In others, of course, we need to press forward.”
Nationally, the gender divide is still a problem. Even in fields awarding a high percentage of degrees to women, Helweg-Larsen says, women are underrepresented in top-ranking academic positions.
“In psychology, women earned 66 percent of doctorates from 1992 to 2000 but represented only 46 percent of the assistant professors in 2002 at the nation’s top universities,” she notes. “The same pattern was true in biology and chemistry. The pattern holds up when you consider postdoctorates.”
Why such a disparity? Research supports some innate gender differences in ability, Helweg-Larsen admits. For example, spatial ability—the ability to rotate three-dimensional objects mentally—improves in women taking male hormones and decreases in men who suppress the hormones.
“But researchers overwhelmingly agree that these innate differences pale in comparison to social factors in explaining the gender gap in science,” she says. “Every step of the way, girls and women are discouraged from pursuing science careers—even when examining the most talented men and women at the Ph.D. level, when those with poor spatial ability are left behind.”
Behavioral neuroscientist Barber agrees that while there are “systematic differences in the brains” of men and women, it’s impossible to attribute the gender gap to any particular cause.
“You cannot truly do an experiment on gender differences because you can’t randomly assign gender,” Barber says. “And if you can’t do a true experiment, you can’t test all variables. That’s just a correlational study, and correlational studies are inherently weaker than experiments.
“For example, males have bigger brains [than females], even correcting for body size,” she explains. “And they have a greater number of neurons. But are these extra neurons all science neurons? Similarly, females brains have more white matter—more axons—than male brains. But does that really matter? Is that better?”
Like Helweg-Larsen, Barber attributes much of the science-gender problem to social factors. “There’s no evidence for a science part of the brain,” Barber says. “There is no science gene on the Y-chromosome. But there is lots of evidence for differences in the way men and women are socialized. If we’re focusing on brain differences, it may be that females have a brain that’s more sensitive to socialization [than male brains]. That’s one thing neuroscientists look at: How does a social experience change your nervous system?”
Barber can speak firsthand about the pervasive discrimination against women in science fields. “I’ve definitely felt it, especially in graduate school,” she says. “I remember having to go to the dean to ask why only males were getting research assistantships. And that’s hard. Part of the difficulty of being a woman in science is that you sometimes are perceived as being aggressive, not assertive. Females are judged more harshly than males.”
However, at Dickinson, Barber says she’s never felt disadvantaged as a woman. “The college does not support any culture of discrimination. I think we’re really good about that.”
And her take on Summers’ comments? “I don’t think what he said was all that bad,” she explains. “What Summers said was that there might be gender differences in ability. This is scientific investigation at its heart. Yes, it is truly the case that there might be a genetic difference. It might be that women are systematically discriminated against. The job of a good scientist is to weed out good hypotheses from unlikely hypotheses and then to test them.”
Barber takes the role of a good scientist supporting other scientists to heart. “I try to make sure my students know that gender has no role in science,” she says. “Women should be encouraged that they can do science just as well as men. But there are people who have assumptions. And if you see something [like discrimination] happen, you can’t let it go. That’s what the Common Hour was for. It was a teaching moment.”
While the Common Hour was a success, it wasn’t Dickinson’s only effort to address the science-gender debate. Last spring, Morgan introduced a new U.S.-diversity course to the curriculum that focuses on the issue. In Science and Gender, students explore and discuss a variety of media, popular and scholarly, historical and contemporary, to understand the complex relationship between women and science.
“The purpose of the course is to show students the experience of women in science, primarily in the United States, and also to show them how science looks at women,” Morgan explains. “We spent a few days discussing Summers’ comments [in the spring]. That debate really brought home the point that the things we were talking about in class were not just from the ’50s or the 19th century—that it’s a fresh topic.
“These students are the people who are going to be the scientists of the future,” Morgan adds. “Being aware of what’s gone on in science in the past and present makes people think about what can happen. And that lets them make progress.”
“I think it’s really indicative of the culture here that a male professor is teaching Science and Gender,” Barber says with a laugh. “This is a good campus for women in science. But it’s healthy to have these debates from time to time. Questions like this always lead to more science, and this is a very good thing.”