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An Article from the April 2005 JOM: A Hypertext-Enhanced Article

Maureen Byko is managing editor of JOM.
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LETTER TO EDITOR

Challenges and Opportunities for Women in Science and Engineering

Maureen Byko

INTRODUCTION

Andrea Hodge is a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Her research interests focus on nanomechanics and the processing and characterization of nanocrystalline materials.

Despite her accomplishments, when a group of Japanese scientists visited to meet with her recently, they waited patiently for “Dr. Hodge” to arrive. The catch was, Hodge was already there. They had seen her, but assumed she was a secretary. “It had not occurred to them that it would be me,” Hodge said.


BEAT THE CLOCK: BIOLOGICAL VS. TENURE

To help women with careers in academia stay on track for tenure during their child-bearing years, universities have begun to change their traditional tenure timelines. The problem now is how to convince faculty that they will not be penalized for using such benefits, said Eve Riskin, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Advance Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington (UW). The Advance Program is funded by the National Science Foundation to attract and retain women in the science and engineering workforce.

Students, on average, receive their Ph.D.s at the age of 34, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). If they intend to work in a university setting, they next must begin working toward tenure, which is usually granted after about seven years of arduous work, including teaching, research, and service on committees. At UW, a faculty member can request a tenure clock extension of one year for the birth of a child. In addition, if the faculty member takes off more than six months, the tenure clock is automatically extended, Riskin said. The AAUP, in its 2001 Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities, recommended that institutions allow the tenure clock to be stopped for up to one year for each child, with no more than two times for any one faculty member. Riskin said such flexible tenure clock options are available at UW and many other universities, but women often feel there is a stigma attached to taking advantage of such options.

“What we’re focusing on now is trying to make the department chairs know that they might have to be proactive in asking a woman, does she want to extend the tenure clock,” Riskin said. “We feel like an important thing to be doing is work on the stigma.” Assistance to faculty at UW is also available through the university’s new Transitional Support Program. Open to all faculty “going through life transitions,” Riskin said the program provides funding while people cope with such situations as caring for an ailing parent or a new baby, or even taking on a new leadership position. For example, one couple, both members of the UW faculty, had a baby who was ill and needed intense care. The program covered the cost of having one parent take a quarter off, and then the other. As a result, the couple worked through the family crisis and remained on staff. When the child was healthy, both were back full time, and despite a competitive offer from another university, chose to remain at UW. The cost to the university was about $16,000 in total, Riskin said—far less than the cost of replacing a faculty member if one or both had resigned. “Supporting faculty through these life transitions ultimately can be an excellent faculty retention strategy,” Riskin said.


ADVANCING WOMEN IN SCIENCE

By definition, people in academia are bright and, particularly in science and engineering, like to consider themselves objective, said Alice Hogan, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advance Program for Institutional Transformation. So if they are faced with evidence that perhaps they are showing some bias in decision-making—in hiring, for example—they should be eager to rectify the problem. The Advance Program was begun in 2001 to help universities do just that—to identify and resolve biases that dissuade women from academic careers in science and engineering. The program was born out of concern that although women were receiving greater numbers of science and engineering degrees, those numbers were not reflected in proportional increases in women being hired by universities. The trend could self-perpetuate, Hogan said, and the NSF wanted to stop the cycle. “If women look ahead and don’t see people like them in the careers they are thinking of . . . we think that has a strong discouraging effect on women students,” Hogan said. “So not only are you not getting the full breadth of talent you have trained, but you’re also not encouraging students.”

In industry, women seem to fare better than on university campuses, said Peggy Layne, director of the Advance Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “Most of my career was spent in the private sector,” she said. “I think corporations have recognized the value of a diverse workforce both in terms of relating to the customer and coming up with a better product.” So far, the Advance Program has awarded grants to 19 universities for one of three purposes: so institutions can increase the number of women in their faculty ranks; to reward individual leadership efforts; and to encourage women at risk of leaving academia to stay or to ease the way for those who have been out of academia and want to re-enter. For many recipients, recruitment, promotion, and tenure efforts have been targeted as areas for improvement, Hogan said. Hiring new professors has often relied on word-of mouth recommendations of friends and colleagues. In a mostly male environment those recommendations are likely to be male, also.

Several Advance grant recipients have begun to assess themselves during the recruiting and hiring process to simply be more aware of opportunities for unintended bias, such as in reviewing applications, and to avoid those pitfalls. As more women are hired, universities need to work toward equity in salary, benefits, and access to equipment and lab space—all sources of common complaints among women in higher-level university positions—and allow penalty-free schedule flexibility for family obligations, she said. “A lot of stuff is just awareness, taking time to think things through,” Hogan said. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.” Already, she said, successes are being reported in the form of increased hiring of women at several Advance institutions. For instance, at Utah State University, results were dramatic. Offers of tenure to women in science, technology, engineering, and math went from 0 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2003, according to the university’s Advance Program Overview, released in March 2005 (Figure A).


Hodge, a 2004 TMS Young Leader Intern from the Structural Materials Division, laughs when she tells that story. She laughs when she talks about the men who did not want her in study groups as an undergraduate—“I thought, ‘Fine, then I’ll ruin the curve for you.’” She jokes about choosing whether to have a family or a career in science, and about male subordinates challenging her authority.

For every anecdote about a gender-specific hurdle she has overcome, Hodge can offer a punch line. Yet the issues she faced could be seen as more than one woman’s humorous life stories. Many are examples of challenges, from subtle assumptions made by individuals to systemic difficulties imposed by institutions, that are thought to be deterring capable women from careers in the sciences.

Those challenges were pushed into the media spotlight in January when the president of Harvard University offered his own theories for the imbalance of men versus women in science and engineering, particularly in universities. In short, Lawrence H. Summers stated in a speech that women, unlike men, were reluctant to commit to an 80-hour work week; that women had less aptitude for science and math than men; and that socialization and continued discrimination perpetuate the first two situations (for the full text of the speech go to www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html. A subsequent apology issued by Summers is at www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/womensci.html).

The response to Summers’ much-publicized comments was immediate and vocal. There were calls for his resignation as well as words of support from people from within and without the Harvard community. It was, apparently, a discussion whose time had come.

“I think what he did was, in a really curious way, a great service,” said Alice Hogan of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Hogan, who was in the audience when Summers gave his controversial speech, directs a program that is working to improve the status of women in science and engineering. When the leader of one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, in an unguarded moment, questioned the scientific abilities and passions of women, Hogan said, he opened the door to questions about obstacles women such as Hodge face in the sciences. “If that’s the kind of stuff that someone like that is thinking, you have to wonder how many people are thinking the same thing,” she said.

ON THE HORIZON: A NEW MAJORITY

Hodge’s tales of succeeding in a man’s world may be humorous, but no one was laughing after Summers made his comments in January at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce. People were talking, however, and in the opinion of Jong-on Hahm, discussion on the topic is desperately needed. Hahm is director of the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Women in Science and Engineering.

She recently compiled some data that points to a changing landscape in the U.S. science and engineering community: Between 1966 and 2001, the number of women earning science and engineering degrees at all levels of education has increased. As of 2001, women were receiving half of all science and engineering bachelors degrees, while the number of bachelors degrees in science and engineering for men has hovered around the same number since 1976 (Figure 1).

At the graduate-school level, the number of female students rose over the years to 41 percent of science and engineering degree recipients in 2001 and 37 percent of the doctoral degree recipients. Meanwhile, the number of male students earning science and engineering doctoral degrees dropped between 1996 and 2001 (Figure 2). Employment numbers, however, have not caught up with the degrees. As of 2001, 26 percent of employed doctorate holders were women.

The numbers tell their own story and society needs to listen, Hamh believes. “Women are the growth area,” she said. “Men—Caucasian men—have not been going into science and engineering. The proportion has been falling. The only growth is in women’s degrees. Regardless of what happens or what people like or what they’re used to, the majority are going to be women. Look, it’s going to happen, get ready for it.”

Ph.D. degrees are considered entrees into a life of university-backed research and teaching. Yet, some common roadblocks have been found to steer women away from such careers. One significant obstacle is a system that compels women such as Hodge to choose between family and career. Universities traditionally do not make the decision easy. To earn tenure, a candidate must dedicate long hours to research, grant writing, publishing, and teaching, leaving little time for anything else.

Hodge, who is 31, cannot envision children fitting into such a schedule. “It’s a hard issue,” she said.

“Myself, I’m looking at going into academia, and if that’s what I’m going to do, that’s all I’m going to do in order to even make it. Maybe the best option if I want to do well is don’t have any children at all. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it works.” If she did have children and wanted to maintain her career, Hodge believes, her husband would have to assume most of the family responsibilities, which to her is an unappealing option. Hodge’s story is a familiar one for people in academia.

“That’s a terrible dilemma to be in,” Hahm said. “It’s almost like the one-child rule in China. No one should be in a position of forcing people to make these choices, especially after taxpayers have invested so much money in their training and education.”

Some universities are trying to offer alternatives that will keep women in the full-time workforce—longer breaks for people who have children and more flexible tenure tracks, among them. But if women take advantage of those options, many fear they will pay a price in career advancement, Alice Hogan said. Hogan is program director for the NSF’s Advance Program for Institutional Transformation, which was begun in 2001 to increase participation of women in the science and engineering workforce, particularly in academic settings.

“A lot of universities have family-friendly policies, but if you use them it’s seen as you just can’t cut it,” she said. “There is a stigma attached.”

THE SUBTLE SETBACKS

Much has been reported in recent years about quantifiable roadblocks to success for women in science and engineering—lower salaries, fewer promotions, and fewer leadership appointments have been documented in numerous studies. Harder to prove are more subtle difficulties women encounter in a male-dominated field such as material science. Just by nature of being in a minority, women in such disciplines stand out more than their male counterparts, which can make their mistakes seem accentuated, said Alissa Johnson, winner of the TMS 2005 J. Keith Brimacombe Presidential Scholarship. Johnson is one of the few women in her undergraduate materials science program at the University of Wisconsin.

Although her department chair is a woman, she has had few female professors in her major. Overall, Johnson said she has been treated as an equal by male professors and students. Still, she has been a bit reluctant to take risks in class. “I guess I found myself not wanting to ask dumb questions,” she said.

In addition, as universities look to increase the number of women participating in their programs, Johnson at times doubts the validity of the honors she earns. “I kind of question when I do get awards, and I do get into schools . . . am I more qualified or does it make their numbers look better?”

In the business world, Hodge has found a resistance by men to refer to her with “Dr.” in front of her name. Toni Marechaux, a TMS member and director of the National Academies’ Board on Manufacturing and Engineering Design in Washington, D.C., often is assumed to be a secretary by callers who expect that “Toni” should be a man. Julia Weertman, one of two female TMS fellows, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and long-time professor of materials science at Northwestern University, finds that men tend to interrupt female colleagues more than they do each other.

These minor incidents could be illustrative of an unintentional mindset discussed by Virginia Valian in her 1998 book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, published by MIT Press. Valian, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, noted that subtle differences in how women are perceived can affect women’s progress in business and academia.

In a January 31, 2005, letter to The New York Times, Valian pointed to recent research in which a group of people were asked to evaluate an assistant vice president in an aircraft company. They were given background information about the company, the person, and the job. Only the genders of the applicants differed. The outcome: with identical information in hand, the group rated male applicants as more competent than the women.

“The finding that emerges from the research, in experiment after experiment, is that bias is a problem not because it is deliberate, but because it is the outcome of assumptions of which we are not consciously aware,” Valian wrote. “That bias generally gives men the benefit of the doubt.”

TITLE IX—NOT JUST FOR ATHLETES

In academia, when more athletic opportunities are being extended to men than women, schools have to equalize their offerings or risk being found in violation of Title IX—the federal law that in 1972 was passed to stop sex discrimination in schools receiving federal assistance for educational programs or activities.

Although the law generated more girl’s soccer teams and better softball fields across the United States, it did little for science and engineering programs. The law was originally written to broadly encompass all activities, including hiring practices, at institutions such as public schools and universities that receive federal grant money, Hahm said. In the near future, Title IX may be invoked for just such a purpose. At the request of U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Barbara Boxer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a study in July 2004 titled “Gender Issues: Women’s Participation in the Sciences has Increased, but Agencies Need to Do More to Ensure Compliance with Title IX.”

The study focused on recipients of grants through the U.S. Department of Education, Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF. Those agencies are conduits for billions of dollars each year for mathematics, engineering, and science grants and projects, according to the report.

The study concluded that institutions receiving that funding are not doing enough to promote equality in their ranks. “Our review of federal science agencies’ oversight for Title IX suggests that much of the leverage afforded by the law lies underutilized in the science arena, even as several billion dollars are spent each year on federal science grants,” the report stated.

The report recommended closer review of compliance by grant recipients. “A more aggressive exercise of the oversight on the part of agencies that wield enormous influence in the world of science funding—Energy, NASA, and NSF—would provide an opportunity to strengthen the goal of Title IX and enable this legislation to better achieve intended results,” the report concluded.

In January, Wyden wrote a letter to President George Bush encouraging the use of Title IX in the coming presidential term.

“Before Title IX, one in 17 girls in school played sports,” he wrote. “Now, it’s one in 2.5, or 40 percent. Imagine if those same changes could be seen in math, science, and engineering from the 20 percent of science undergraduates who are women today, to 40 percent or even 50 percent. From the six percent of engineering professors who are women today to 40 percent.” “The potential of Title IX is enormous,” Wyden continued. “Enforcing it in these fields (math, science, and engineering) could revolutionize the study and application of math and science in this country.”

CONCLUSION

Laws that enforce equality in the workplace are important, many agree. Critical, it seems, are parents who encourage their children to pursue their passions. Marechaux and Johnson reported that their parents early on removed any barriers to achievement. Both were told they could be whatever they wanted to be, and they believed it. Hodge said she attended an all-girls’ school where gender was never an issue. Likewise, Weertman’s parents were fully supportive of her—with one gender-neutral caveat. “My parents always left me with the feeling I could do anything I wanted to do, as long as I didn’t catch cold,” she said.

That belief served Weertman well. When she began her career in materials science, there were no female role models or professors. Now, at 79, Weertman is an esteemed member of the materials science community, as well as a role model and professor. She continues to work in her retirement, paring her hours to just 50 or 60 a week, she says. She discusses the schedule with no complaints.

Marechaux’ mother told her she could even be a nuclear physicist one day, if she so desired. Marechaux proved her mother right. She did her masters degree—polistron annihilation in nickel—in nuclear physics. Now, Marechaux sleeps with a handheld computer under her pillow. If she wakes up with a thought about one of the many projects she is working on, she can type it quickly so it will not be lost. Her work and social life blend so that she is rarely off duty. A self-proclaimed workaholic, Marechaux cannot imagine the 9-to-5 lifestyle she has heard about from friends.

Hodge said she was raised with few gender-based expectations. Strong in math, she gravitated toward materials science in college. Now, she works 60 to 70 hours a week in the lab, making time for sleep and little else. She envisions a life in science, and as perplexed as she is by limitations the work imposes on her personal life, she would not choose anything else. “I think the life of a scientist is a beautiful life,” Hodge said. And this time, she was not laughing.


Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2005

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