May 12, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 16

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Symposium to address low numbers of women in science fields

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Scientists and scholars from across the country will address University faculty, administrators and students about the severe under-representation of women in science during a symposium from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, in the Biological Sciences Learning Center auditorium.

    The symposium, “Why So Few Women in Science? Defining the Problem and Taking Action,” is sponsored by the Physical Sciences Division and co-sponsored by the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Enrico Fermi Institute, the James Franck Institute, and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    The symposium was triggered in part by the public debate that has played out in recent months regarding the extent to which innate differences in ability have contributed to the gender imbalance in science. But research on the issue indicates that is not the case, said Evalyn Gates, a Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics and chair of the symposium organizing committee.

    “There’s a wealth of research demonstrating that we live in a very gendered society,” Gates said. “If you want to address some of the issues, you need to understand what’s already known about how men and women are perceived, encouraged and evaluated differently, in spite of everyone’s best efforts.”

    The symposium speakers will provide a status report on women in science and help identify ways in which the University might make progress in this area, Gates said. The speakers are as follows: Rachel Ivie, a staff member of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics. Ivie is co-author of the report Women in Physics and Astronomy 2005.

    Kimberlee Shauman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. Shauman is co-author of Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes.”

    Londa Schiebinger, professor of history of science and the Barbara Finberg director of the Institute on Women and Gender at Stanford University. Schiebinger is the author of The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science, and Has Feminism Changed Science?

    Tim McKay, associate professor of physics and associate chair for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan. McKay’s department has benefited from the National Science Foundation Advance Program, a five-year project to increase the participation, success and leadership of women faculty members in academic science and engineering.

    When Gates became a physics major in the late 1970s, she was the only female in her class, and there were no women on the physics faculty at her school. “Back then, there weren’t any other women around, and there was a lot of discussion about the fact that there aren’t enough women in physics,” Gates said.

    “Thirty years later we don’t seem to have made much progress, especially in comparison with other academic fields and professions. We’re still having the same conversation, and there are still very few women around.”

    In 2003, women earned 22 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in physics and 18 percent of the Ph.D.s, according to the American Institute of Physics. In astronomy, women earned 26 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 26 percent of the Ph.D.s in 2003, the report said.

    But those numbers might improve if scientists approached the problem the way they have tackled experiments that have successfully uncovered the basic nature of matter and reconstructed the evolution of the universe, Gates said.

    In physics and other scientific fields, researchers carefully ensure that they fully understand the behavior and limitations of the detector they have built in order to ensure the validity of their data. “Our experience as scientists tells us strongly that no detector is perfect. You cannot make a perfect detector. It’s going to have biases,” Gates said.

    “Humans are also detectors, and so the information that comes in about how we perceive people, what our ideas are, what makes a good scientist, whether this particular individual deserves encouragement or not, comes through our own detector. And because we live in such a gendered society, all of our detectors are biased.”

    In the Physical Sciences Division at the University, 30 percent of the graduate students (221 of 729) and nine percent of the faculty (17 of 179) are female. Earlier this year, Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division, appointed a Diversity Committee to examine how best to make the division more representative of women and minorities at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and faculty levels.

    The committee is chaired by Heinrich Jaeger, a Professor in Physics and the College and a member of the symposium organizing committee. “One important area to look at is how supportive and nurturing is the campus environment,” Jaeger said.

    Although still in its early stages, Jaeger said the committee will work with individuals and departments across the physical sciences to bring a new focus to the division’s diversity efforts. “The dean is very, very serious about making a difference,” he said.