Remove the Career Obstacles for Women in Science
THE gateway to careers in science and engineering is opening more readily for women these days. But women still find the road leading to that gateway and the career paths beyond it strewn with obstacles.
There is a big difference between making career opportunities available to women and actually smoothing the way for females to take full advantage of such opportunities. As a new manifesto on the subject from American astronomers puts it, "women should not have to be clones of male astronomers in order to participate in the mainstream of astronomical research." That also applies to science and engineering generally.
The astronomers' statement focuses on what it calls "the need to develop a scientific culture within which both women and men can work effectively." Traditional "affirmative action" can mandate equal treatment of men and women. But unless the attitudes and expectations of colleagues, supervisors, and decisionmakers recognize inherent gender differences, that treatment is unlikely to be truly equal.
A university, for example, can provide part-time appointments that enable young woman professors to pursue a research and teaching career and to carry out family responsibilities. Yet, when these women are considered for tenure (lifetime appointment), faculty committees may judge their work by productivity standards established for full-time male counterparts. This can unfairly bias the decision against an otherwise brilliant woman scientist - one who ultimately would be back to full-time work.
Women may have styles of thinking and expression that don't conform to traditional male notions of how scientists think, talk, and act. This creates often unconscious pressure for women to be more like men. Sexual harassment by male colleagues compounds the problem.
Daniel E. Koshland, editor of the journal Science, has observed that many successful women scientists have "succeeded by being even more imaginative than their male colleagues, by being willing to work longer hours or by giving up responsibilities to home and family." This, he notes, is an "added burden on a career path that requires extraordinary effort and ability under the best of circumstances."
A conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore explored this problem last fall. It resulted in the Baltimore Charter manifesto presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Berkeley, Calif., last month.
The manifesto calls on scientific professionals to set serious goals to bring more gender diversity into all aspects of their professional life. This includes such things as awards, invitations to speak, and service on important committees, as well as hiring, promotion, and tenure. It urges strong action to curb sexual harassment. It recommends more awareness of women's needs, such as the different pacing of careers.
Creating a social climate that encourages women to pursue creative scientific and engineering work is a tough task. It involves removing obstacles that, in some cases, may be so subtle we are not yet fully aware of them.
Last year, Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland sponsored a bill to set up a 17-member fact-finding commission to identify these barriers. It passed the House but not the Senate. She has reintroduced the bill this year. Congress should enact it so the full dimensions of the challenge can be seen.
Meanwhile, universities and other research institutions and the relevant professional societies should study the astronomers' Baltimore Charter. Its recommendations would move the effort to eliminate gender bias beyond the palliative of mere "affirmative action."