September 28, 2006

Bias in Science Blocks Women From Top Jobs

Print More

A young woman walks into Cornell Fitness Center at Teagle Hall wearing a t-shirt boasting a large periodic table on the back and bold statement. It reads, “Chemists do it on the table … periodically.”

There is at least one female Cornell student proud of, and amused by, her interest in science.

However, according to a report released by a National Academies committee a few weeks ago, it will be difficult for this enthusiastic chemist to find a female professor in science and engineering departments to appreciate her inside joke in the classroom or a peer to share it with when she graduates into the workplace.

The Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering wrote the report titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” which states that women are underrepresented in academic science and engineering faculties due to compulsory biases and antiquated policies.

“For women to participate to their full potential across all science and engineering fields, they must see a career path that allows them to reach their full intellectual potential,” the committee said.

The report notes the dramatic increase in women undergraduates holding undergraduate science and engineering degrees, but “with each step up the academic ladder from high school on through full professorships,” the population of women working in those fields substantially declines.

Biology major Brittany Birrell ’07 also noticed this pattern.

“Women are not in the minority in my core biology classes, and I often feel that they outnumber the men in many of them,” she said. “It is in the upper-level and more analytical biology courses where I have found women to be in the minority.”

The panel’s report denies that lack of ability and drive are the reasons behind this drop off and the relative underrepresentation of women in science and engineering fields. It cites several cognitive studies suggesting that there are no significant biological differences in men and women in performing math and science. Instead, the report said daunting barriers of implicit biases favoring men in these areas lead to a lack of women in leadership roles and discourage the pursuit of science vocations.

“We must get past the idea of an old man with white hair and a lab coat as the quintessential scientist,” said Christina Nowik ’07, president of the student group Women in Science at Cornell. “An important step is to give young scientists women professors to look up to.”

Prof. Shelley Correll, sociology, agrees that attracting more top female faculty members can improve some of the problem.

“If we attract more top female faculty, our female engineering and science students will have more role models, which will be helpful to them as they pursue their own studies and careers,” she said.

Yet, some Cornell science students are not discouraged by the male- dominated fields. . Astronomy major Catherine Elder ’08 has gotten use to women being a diminutive presence in her physics classes and does not agree that biases will prevent her from excelling.

“I’ll probably go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. and maybe become a professor,” she said.

Elder’s optimism coincides with the common perception that gender discrimination is not a factor in the job war anymore. Correll said that because society and universities have made a lot of progress in many areas, especially in science, it is easy to believe the problem has already been solved.

Moreover, the number of women in engineering programs at Cornell is significantly above the national average according to Joanna Antisell ’07, president of the Society of Women Engineers. The incoming engineering school freshman classes have comprised of 28 percent women over the past few years. Women represent around 50 percent of the biochemical engineering program, while women outnumber men in chemical engineering.

“The strong female presence compared to other schools was one of the deciding factors for me to attend Cornell,” Antisell said.

Still, the diverse environment Cornell creates in the classroom does not accurately reflect the playing field for hopeful women scientists and engineers.

“Being in college, biases in the classroom are much more subtle, if they exist at all, so it is difficult to expect students to see the larger picture or notice a systematic pattern of inequality in the working world,” Correll said.

The National Academies committee report leaves it to higher education institutions to be among the first to promote change. The panel insists that colleges should modify their infrastructures in order to “recruit, retain and promote women,” and Cornell is making strides in line with the committee’s suggestions. The University recently announced that the National Science Foundation is giving Cornell a $3.3 million grant. Starting Nov. 1, it will fund a five-year effort to increase the sub par female population in science and engineering faculty positions. The University stands to gain a lot from reducing barriers that limit the success of women, Correll said.

“Research is very clear that when organizations set out to improve the climate for women, they almost always also improve the climate for men,” she said. “When the climate is better for employees, they are more successful at work, which benefits the organization.”

Although she approves of the University’s efforts to improve the working climate for women, Correll said organizational efforts would only do so much. Women also need to obtain the survival skills to navigate their career paths successfully, and science majors acknowledge that money will not fix to the issue indefinitely.

“The ultimate goal is for equality,” Nowik said. “We need to get women into the highest levels of science in order to dispel discrimination, and grants are not a permanent solution to the problem, but in order to build momentum we need more women faculty here so it’s a good start.”