When the debate began, the argument for women in science centered on the inherent unfairness of gender discrimination. It was highlighted by the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early 1970s and still endures. Policies and legal measures based on equity considerations (among them, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972) led to the remarkable increase in women joining the science professions during the early 1970s.

Equity talk is cheap, of course. A more intriguing issue is how seriously society takes its lofty rhetoric of equal opportunity--how much energy and how many resources it commits to remedying gender inequities. The history of the past two decades indicates that the advancement of women in the sciences has moved up on the national agenda when additional arguments have bolstered the equity concern.

Human Resource

In the 1980s, a human-resource consideration arose and joined the equity argument, forging an alliance between advocates of America's global leadership in science and advocates for women in science. National Science Foundation estimates that projected a serious shortfall of scientists alarmed those who considered an emaciated science sector a sure recipe for long-term national decline.

Tapping into hitherto underutilized talent pools, such as those of women and minorities, was seen as a way to compensate for the expected shortfall of candidates from the traditional source--the white male population--and also to boost the numbers of indigenous scientists vis-a-vis an increasing influx of foreign nationals, especially from Asian countries.

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During the 1980s, this human-resource argument helped fuel policy initiatives and attempts to boost the numbers of women in science. A key federal agency in this push was the National Science Foundation which, in the 1980 Science and Technologies Opportunities Act, had received the express mandate to increase the participation in science and engineering of women, minorities and persons with disabilities.

Yet by the early 1990s, the shortfall predictions had become doubtful. To the multitude of young scientists who, in many scientific fields, now face a glutted labor market and find it difficult to secure a job, these predictions might seem little more than a cruel joke. At this moment, the case for increasing the contingent of women in science can thus no longer rely on the argument that otherwise there would not be enough scientists.

Better Science

Instead, a science-internal argument has increasingly gained currency. In its several varieties, the argument posits that increasing diversity among scientists--in this context, a greater representation of women--will improve the quality of science as a whole. Some members of the science studies community assert that science is largely socially constructed and that its validity is bounded by its social context (including the scientists' gender).

From this perspective, it would seem fairly straightforward that an influx of women scientists is needed to balance the predominant "male science" with what might be called "female science." This argument has elicited fierce opposition, and we need not adjudicate it here.

Yet one does not have to be a relativist or social constructionist to see advantages in diversity: The presence of a diverse group of investigators tends to widen the range of topic choice. It also appears to create more varied hypotheses. Finally, it may accelerate the speed with which collective blind spots are scrutinized and eliminated--blind spots that otherwise might linger on for a longer time in a homogeneous research community that shares certain unquestioned preferences and prejudices.

"When I applied to medical school, most places had gender-based quotas and would only admit 5 or 10 percent women. Even applying for medical school was a challenge."--Susan Love

The discipline of biology provides prime examples. Here, for instance, human gender stereotypes sometimes were inappropriately transferred to animals or to other biological systems. Often these cases of "male science" were, plainly and simply, bad science. Their exposure, mainly by women biologists, thus helped the discipline to progress. Primatology, for example, has gained a lot from the contributions of women researchers, such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, whose work transformed earlier, cruder theories of social dominance among primates. It is highly controversial whether "harder" sciences, physics for instance, are similarly susceptible to the latter problem, as some scholars have argued.

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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