Women’s Work?

Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory


Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


When Judith Fridovich-Keil, associate professor of genetics, was a graduate student in biology at mit in the 1980s, there were only six female faculty out of a total of fifty-six in the department. She and her peers looked at those numbers and worried they may have chosen the wrong career.

Fast forward to the present, and signs of progress are visible (see sidebars). And last spring, the National Academy of Sciences elected nineteen female members, the largest number of women ever selected in a single year. But women still occupy a small proportion of science faculty at top research universities. As of spring 2005, 14 percent of Emory’s faculty in biology, chemistry, math, and physics were women. Of tenured faculty in those departments, 10 percent were women.

Last January, Harvard President Lawrence Summers infamously speculated why the numbers favor men so heavily. Most prominent, he posited, is the “general clash” between women’s desires to have families unencumbered by a time-consuming and demanding profession. He also raised the possibility that in the rarefied territory of scientific brilliance, men possess greater “intrinsic aptitude.” A distant third, he blamed discrimination and socialization patterns that discourage women from pursuing traditionally male roles.

No amount of apologies or explanations assuaged Summers’ critics, whose reactions ranged from eye-rolling disbelief to disgust and calls for his resignation. He stayed, and in May pledged that Harvard would spend $50 million over the next decade to improve the recruitment, support, and retention of female faculty members. The money is earmarked for, among other things, creation of the post of senior vice provost for diversity and faculty development, and greater support for programs to encourage work-family balance.

Leaving aside the question of whether Summers ventured into territory ill-befitting his credentials, was the vitriol altogether justified?

“What was most striking about the affair was the vehemence of the reaction to his comments,” says Kim Wallen, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Behavioral neuroendocrinology, who investigates the development and expression of sex differences in monkeys and humans. “He also said that the sexes differed in their variation in math ability, and that’s gotten lost in the discussion: There are more men who are math geniuses, but there are also more who are math morons. If universities are recruiting from the top one or two percentiles, that might explain, at least numerically, why women are underrepresented—but it doesn’t explain away other factors that might account for the numbers of women in scientific faculty positions. Clearly there is also some sort of socialization factor.”

And clearly, many women excel in science, a fact that renders minor statistical variations largely meaningless when attempting to explain the gender gap in scientific academe. Among undergraduates, the proportion of females in fields such as physics and astronomy remains very low, but women often outnumber men in biological sciences. Why don’t those numbers carry into the ranks of college faculty?

Reinventing the workplace

The big reason that there aren’t as many women in my field is the fear of trying to balance having a family and the pressures and time you have to dedicate in order to do the job,” says Anita Corbett, associate professor of biochemistry. “People say that the ‘pipeline’ is filling with women and we’ll see the numbers turn around, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Corbett notes that she’s spoken frequently with female graduate students about the sacrifices the life of a researcher requires. She also knows at least four women in her field who were advancing along academic career tracks, but who jumped off after having children. Corbett herself has managed to juggle three children and her academic life. On the day she went into labor with her first-born, Maya, in 2000, she submitted two papers. “The keys for me have been a husband who truly shares in child care and everything else, and a very good babysitter,” she said. “It’s doable—challenging, but doable.”

Preetha Ram, a chemistry lecturer and assistant dean for science in Emory College, agrees. “While working women everywhere have to balance family and career, the terrain is different in the sciences,” says Ram, who has three children. She observed that among the few women in chemistry faculty positions, still fewer have children. “It’s important for young women who are passionate about science to know that pursuing science careers does not mean abandoning personal goals.”

To encourage more women to stay in the sciences, she adds, universities can reinvent the workplace by instituting shared appointments (in which faculty split teaching and research loads); raising consideration for trailing spouses; further increasing the flexibility of the tenure clock; and providing low-cost, high-quality childcare, maternity benefits, and other supportive measures. (In 2000 Emory adopted a policy that allows for a delay of tenure review of up to two years under certain circumstances, including childbirth.)

Family issues, to be sure, are a concern for women in all academic disciplines. But Sue Jinks-Robertson, professor of biology, pointed out that hard sciences present obstacles that further tear researchers from family time: “The grant process is relentless. It doesn’t stop because you want to have a family. You can’t conduct experiments on your own timeline, and you can’t close down a laboratory for a couple of months to take off for the summer.” Jinks-Robertson, who has three children and was pregnant when she interviewed at Emory, says she was a little naïve about those insistent demands when she embarked on her research career.

Fridovich-Keil, a mother of two, acknowledges the importance of an accommodating family. “What you need is a supportive spouse
or some other form of support structure,” she says. “You also need a good group of friends to help share the load and to cover you in emergencies. We cover for each other, and carpools are a
lifesaver.” But unlike many, she views academic science as well-suited for women who want children. “I tell the women graduate students that this is exactly the right career if you love science and also want to have kids. It’s a lot of work, but it’s flexible. Although most days I work predominantly from my office and lab, I can work from home when necessary, or I can leave to drive a carpool and then come back.  The flexibility enables me to pursue a career I love, and also to be the kind of parent I want to be. It’s a very supportive environment.” She also emphasizes child care as a crucial element in the mix, though a common complaint about Emory’s day care is the long waiting list.

What women really want

Why, though, does the debate always seem to return to the compromises that women have to make to balance family and career? Probably, says Fridovich-Keil, because society still consigns women to the role of the primary caregiver for children. But she also knows male colleagues who have significantly modified their career paths to accommodate family needs, and many who are very involved in child-rearing. Most of the women she’s known who have gone into scientific research did so because they loved science but had not given much thought to how that choice might affect decisions regarding family down the road. But once children enter the scene, women traditionally adopt a greater share of domestic responsibilities, and that leads to career trade-offs.

While none of the nine women who spoke with the AE said they had encountered any incidents of significant, targeted discrimination in their careers, most are aware of colleagues who were subjected to unambiguous prejudice designed to derail their work or keep them from faculty positions. The type of discrimination most likely to occur, though, is not overt, hostile or even conscious, says Arri Eisen, a senior lecturer in biology who has two children.

“Those who make the [hiring] decisions here are predominantly older white males,” he says. “Many of them started their careers when there were virtually no women at all in their fields, so it isn’t part of their world view. Chances are they’re most comfortable hiring people like themselves. It’s just human.” Eisen, who has worked for years to increase the number of African-Americans in the sciences, says he’s never heard a male colleague object to hiring women or work against it. “If anything, it’s been the opposite, they really do and should make an effort to hire women faculty.”

But as much as he’d like to see the gender gap in science shrink, he also wonders if the dearth of women at research-oriented universities is something that can be avoided. “Does it have to be a goal that everything is equal? Well no, if women are happy it doesn’t really make sense,” he says, adding that he believes many talented women scientists have no desire to be at a major research university, and many find positions at liberal arts schools that place less emphasis on research and grants.

“If that’s what they want, then it’s not a problem, so why should we force an issue that isn’t there? But if there are women who feel they’re being discriminated against to the point that they’re not getting jobs, then it’s a problem. I don’t think that’s the case. The women I interact with at the postdoctoral level who want faculty positions get faculty positions. They just don’t necessarily get them at a research-oriented schools.”—S.F.