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Digging Deeper

The present status of women scientists suggests avenues of further research
Awareness has been rising that the group of women scientists is no monolith. Researchers have begun to examine gender in context with other key variables, such as race and social class. Even beyond these major social determinants, the range and variation of career paths among women scientists is ever widening. Great individual differences can be found among women scientists, as well as a substantial overlap between the group of women scientists and the similarly diverse group of men scientists.

Institutional Focus

AT ISSUE:
Should universities strive to equalize the numbers of women scientists in various disciplines?

What's your opinion?

The growing diversity suggests we take a closer look at individual institutions. Women are not randomly distributed over science departments, even of the same discipline and caliber. Some departments, for instance, have impressive track records on women's issues, and others dismal ones. Therefore, it has become important to examine the situation in particular departments. Non-academic settings need to be studied in similar detail; it is crucial to look at the science divisions of individual companies in the private sector as well as at individual science establishments run by government agencies.

Culture of the Workplace


"Typically, a male graduate student will have an established set of colleagues that he will have his whole life. The male students would pick up the phone to call each other about problems, but no one would pick up the phone to call me." --Vera Rubin

In very few disciplines, scientists do their scientific work in isolation. Most scientists collaborate closely with others, be it in the laboratory or at the computer, on research ships or on expeditions in inhospitable regions. And virtually all scientists are in contact with their colleagues when it comes to more administrative duties, such as serving on various committees, from hiring to curriculum reform. Subtle cues, elusive behaviors, informal ways of doing things, unspoken standards of performance all create an atmosphere that varies from one work group to the next and that can have an enormous impact on whether women scientists feel welcome and choose to participate or not.

Scientific Styles

Do women and men do science differently? In our Project Access study at Harvard, we were able to document subtle gender differences in scientific style. For instance, female scientists were perceived as less aggressive, combative and self-promoting in the pursuit of career success, compared with male scientists--characteristics that could hardly be advantageous in the highly competitive science environment. Women also were found to choose relatively uncrowded "niche" fields for their scientific work.

Those who try to make the culture of the workplace more attractive to women scientists must take such differences into consideration and should enable women to turn differences into advantages--for themselves as well as for science as a whole.

In fact, differences in the style of scientific work may be an asset that women bring to science as a collective enterprise. Yet we always have to keep in mind that we are dealing here, at most, with statistical tendencies; scientific style also varies greatly within the group of women scientists. The area of scientific style is still little understood, and research is just beginning.


Excerpted from a paper prepared by Gerhard Sonnert of Harvard University for the New York Academy of Sciences conference "Choices and Successes: Women in Science and Engineering"

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