Women and Science, Post-Summers

Sociologists offer unexplored issues raised by the Harvard president's comments -- and suggestions on how colleges should change.
August 15, 2005

When sociologists gathered Sunday to talk about the state of women in science, there was complete agreement on a few things: Women face continued bias, colleges aren't meeting their obligations, and Lawrence H. Summers is clueless (or at least he was when he made his now notorious comments in January).

But the scholars on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association offered a range of ideas on how to study the challenges facing women in science and on the most important steps for colleges to take. Audience members, mixing their research and personal experiences, linked the topic of women and science to a broader range of issues in academe, including rising standards for tenure and changing definitions of institutional success.

The session was organized in response to Summers's comments, which angered many women nationwide -- and clearly infuriated many sociologists.

Cecilia L. Ridgeway, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, said it was important to challenge the view (which Summers appeared to endorse) that discrimination against women is gone because relatively few men today would admit to not wanting to hire a woman. She discussed research that she and others have done on "implicit biases in social relations," and how those biases are likely to play out for women in science.

Gender neutrality is difficult, she said, because all empirical research on the subject has shown that "you can't deal with a person without first picturing them as a man or a woman."

So our first instincts about someone place them in a gender category, she said. The impact of this categorization is greatest in areas -- like science -- in which people have expectations that the best ideas or work may come from men, Ridgeway said. These "unconscious expectations" then become self-fulfilling. And the result, in her view, is a "home team advantage" for men when it comes to seeking positions in academic science.

Ridgeway said that women in science need the equivalent of what California wineries did some years ago to challenge French vineyards. The American upstarts arranged for blind tastings, stunning the French when the California wines emerged on top. Since academic job candidates can't be evaluated in a similarly blind way, she said, more accountability is needed, so it can be certain that searches are focused on the right issues.

Gail Simmons, dean of science and technology at the College of Staten Island, said that the Summers debate pointed to the need to consider "the fundamental structure" of higher education. She said that universities grew out of a monastic tradition in Europe and while they have evolved, they were designed as all-male enclaves in which success had to be determined early and in proscribed ways.

Bonnie Thornton Dill, chair of women's studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, criticized not only Summers,  but also all of those who have talked about the issue of women in science without spending any time talking about differences among women in science. Noting the stereotypes about the abilities of black people, Dill said that Summers's comments, when added to those existing biases, created significant obstacles for black women.

"We cannot use this general category of 'women in science,'" Dill said. "There is no generic woman. Studying generic women is studing elite white women."

Dill noted that more black women are taking science courses as undergraduates, but they are not pursuing academic careers, "creating a growing gap between the professoriate and the people they teach."

Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, sparked considerable discussion when he related the issue of women in science to the excessive workloads faced by many scientists starting their careers. He noted that one of the reasons Summers offered for the gender gap in science was that men are more likely than are women to be willing to work 80-hour weeks. This "professional devotion" argument is off in two ways, Jacobs said. It overstates how much most academics work and it presumes that whatever work levels are demanded must be appropriate.

Jacobs said that both men and women need to challenge assumptions about work hours. "You don't need to work all of the time," Jacobs said. He said that if colleges focused more on the value of work, and less on the hours, they would end up with equally brilliant, but much happier, faculty members.

Colleges, he said, need to consider a range of "family friendly" policies, and to take time seriously all of the time, making sure -- for example -- that meetings don't take place unless they need to, and then are run efficiently.

Audience members generally agreed with all of his suggestions. Several said it was important to focus on changing assumptions about work hours so that the only path to success for women not be to become "honorary men." But others questioned whether the kinds of changes Jacobs and others want are realistic.

One audience member noted that colleges these days are trying to raise their stature by attracting more research grants and they are raising the bar for tenure -- adding pressure on young faculty members, not limiting it. Another audience member said that while she agreed with all of the suggestions, she was "troubled" that all of the talk about helping mothers could create a sense that "women's problem in science is motherhood." This faculty member, who identified herself as a new mother, said it was important that the discussion keep the emphasis on colleges' responsibilities.

Jacobs said that he was hopeful that colleges would change over time -- in part out of self-interest when they realize that gender equity and more reasonable work expectations will help them attract talent. But Jacobs also noted the need for more progress. He was the only man on the panel and most of the audience was female. "We need more men" to be listening, Jacobs said.

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