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Selling Women on Science

Market forces alone won't eliminate inequities. Further intervention will be needed
The experience over the past decades suggests that it is not enough to provide legal equality and then trust the "market forces" within the science system to eradicate gender inequities--science must also be "marketed" toward women. There is a broad consensus that special efforts are still necessary and, indeed, there is now a great variety of interventions designed to help women in science.

The most intuitive and common way of classifying interventions is according to their targeted stage in the pipeline--K-12, college, graduate school, professional career, etc. Some investigators have proposed more sophisticated frameworks for ordering interventions. First there is that of duration. Talks, seminars or workshops are single events, whereas changes in departmental practices and rules or the establishment of a commission for women in science, for instance, are more permanent.

Another useful dimension is the scale of the initiative. On one end of this spectrum, there are individual efforts (for instance, a professor's decision to make a course more "female-friendly"). Other initiatives are carried out at the departmental level. At the other end, there are interventions at the national level (by the government, National Science Foundation or national associations for science or for individual disciplines). Furthermore, there is the degree of formalization--ranging from informal volunteer efforts to formally established programs. And few would deny that the amount and type of funding is crucial.

As to the target area of the intervention, we distinguish between the teaching and practice of science itself, career skills and the domestic/career interface. In the first area, there are efforts to make the teaching of science more "female friendly."

AT ISSUE:
Should more efforts be undertaken to make science 'female friendly'? Or do they set women up for criticism as beneficiaries of quotas?

What's your opinion?

Science professors were found to be the most conservative in terms of sticking to traditional teaching techniques. The traditional methods of teaching scientists might be expected to work best for those who traditionally have become scientists. Innovative changes in teaching techniques and curriculum would, therefore, seem likely to benefit women (and other non-traditional talent pools) overproportionately, even if they are not exclusively targeted. An evaluation of female friendly techniques found that they helped both men and women students.

Interventions that do not target women as such but scientists in general will obviously be easier to "sell." The universal goals of projects that pursue the improvement of science education or science are much less controversial than projects that might be construed as providing an unjustified advantage to a special interest group.

The following are two examples of promising innovations in science teaching (in general): Eric Mazur at the Harvard Physics Department has developed a computer-aided interactive teaching method for introductory physics. Because, in this approach, students discuss physics problems in small groups on the spot, it becomes easier for usually reticent students to participate actively. In introductory chemistry at Harvard, Dudley Herschbach has introduced a series of "resurrection points" that allow students to erase weaker test scores they receive early in the course at later points during the course. This bolsters students' confidence and resilience through initial difficulties with the subject.

In the area of career skills, Michael Zigmond from the University of Pittsburgh has developed an ethics and survival skill workshop, which has been disseminated to other institutions. Although such efforts are not targeted specifically toward women, women might benefit disproportionately, because they more frequently than men are not taught, or do not pick up, the informal "hidden agenda" of skills essential for a successful science career.

Intervention at the domestic/career interface contains efforts to alleviate problems through daycare and parental leave policies, as well as assistance with dual-career issues.


"I made it by becoming one of the boys. I think some women go through experiences like that in a sisterly or daughterly mode, but I just toughed it out and didn't really stop to think."
--Susan Love

Given the rising complexity of women's situation in the sciences, the diversity of initiatives that currently exists is an asset rather than a problem. "One-size-fits-all" solutions may be obsolete, and any quest for identifying the last big obstacle and devising a "magic bullet" for its solution may be in vain. As the issues are subtle and cumulative, so may be the solutions, and we may already be on the right track.

Since the 1940s, the quality of science in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and America has been preeminent in most fields of scientific research. Ultimately, what is at issue now is to both increase well-qualified women's chances at having satisfying science careers and further improve science itself as a human activity.

During the last decades, science in the U.S., despite many handicaps, has delivered brilliantly in terms of expanding useful knowledge and deepening our insight into nature and society. The challenge before us is to continue this story of dazzling successes on the scientific frontiers by striving for the best use of the available human potential and the fair treatment of all those who are making these successes possible--the scientists, women and men.


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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