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Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

A conference celebrates the advances of the past 25 years and examines why disparities still persist
woman at microscope

In 1972, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) sponsored a landmark conference on women in science and engineering. At that time, people hardly felt they needed an elaborate analysis to understand why women were underrepresented in these fields. The answer seemed obvious: blatant, pervasive patterns of gender segregation across the workforce.

But that era was also one of rapid and immense change. The women's movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in concert with a widespread push for societal reform, dramatically changed the situation of women in science as well as in many other occupations.

When the NYAS held its most recent conference on the status of women in March-- "Choices and Successes: Women in Science and Engineering"--the issue had become "is the glass half full or half empty?" Without question, women have made substantial progress in science careers over the past 25 years. Yet it is equally obvious that, in many areas, full gender equity still remains elusive.

Indeed, women seem to have fared better in government and industry than in academe. Motorola Corp., for example, has 43 women vice-presidents. According to government statistics, women comprised 51 percent of the U.S. population and 46 percent of the labor force in 1996, but, although the numbers of women scientists and engineers has grown considerably, they accounted for only 22 percent of the technical workforce.

Now, however, sociologists, psychologists and other researchers have provided the tools to examine the gender gap in science and engineering. In the years between 1960 and 1977, the Social Science Citation Index listed only 16 articles under women--or gender--and science or women scientists for the years, but as many as 95 articles appeared under these categories during the shorter time span of 1978 through August 1991.

At the recent NYAS conference, Harvard University science historian Gerhard Sonnert set the agenda with a review paper based on this recent scholarly research. His colleague, Gerald Holton presented results of his studies on the way women scientists see themselves and their endeavor.

In this special web report, Scientific American excerpts from the Harvard researchers' work to document the changing challenges facing women in science, delve into gender differences, examine the underlying causes and theories about women's status in science and present some proposals for change.

We also offer the personal experiences of three determined women scientists who bested the odds in another era to achieve the highest levels of success in their fields. Throughout this interesting and thought-provoking feature we will ask you (women and men alike, we hope) for your opinion on key issues; we will post the answers in a forthcoming web edition.

As Holton noted in his presentation, "Surely all these individuals want to be good to science. The question now is, how can science be good to them."



IN THEIR WORDS


Three leading scientists describe the challenges and rewards of their careers.


"I had been given every excuse imaginable for not hiring me, even when there was an opening. They had never had a woman in the laboratory before and were sure I would be a 'distracting influence.' "
--Chemist Gertrude Elion




"My pre-med advisor said, 'If you go to medical school, you'll be killing some boy.' The Vietnam War was going on, and men who went to medical school were exempt from the draft."
--Surgeon Susan Love




"If you spend your day worrying about medical things, why not be the doctor instead of the nurse?"
--Astronomer Vera Rubin


TOPICS:



25 Years of Changes

Does Science Need Women?

The "Leaky Pipeline"

Treated Differently--or Different?

Doing "Good" Science

Emerging Issues

Framework for the Future
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