Art by Dennis Nishi


Photo by Art by Dennis Nishi

Women in Science: How Bias Holds Them Back

Caltech, the top scientific research university in the world, just spent 10 years trying to increase its female faculty members to 25 percent. Why didn’t it work?

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The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is ranked as the top scientific research university in the world. Its scientists have won 32 Nobel Prizes, discovered the building blocks of the universe and helped usher in jet flight and space travel.

But it couldn’t make sure that one in four of its science professors was female. Not even after 10 years of trying.

“When I started in the engineering department in 1988 there was one other woman out of a faculty of 80,” says Dr. Melany Hunt, a professor of mechanical engineering and Caltech’s vice provost. Hunt is head of the school’s diversity committee, which spearheads the effort to hire more women and minority faculty members. “Her field was different to mine, so I didn’t see her or talk with her that often. It felt like I was the only woman…and being the only one is really alienating.”

Her story is a familiar one at Caltech, which only began admitting female undergrads in 1974. (To put that in perspective: women in Afghanistan had been voting a decade before the first Caltech co-ed took a stroll across the quad.)  But Caltech isn’t alone. MIT discovered institutional bias against female professors as early as 1994. Harvard, too, has grappled with the issue of “missing” female scientists, although perhaps with less sensitivity (remember then-president Larry Summers explaining how women were innately poor at math and science?)

Nevertheless, Caltech’s situation wasn’t pretty. In 1990, women made up six percent of the science and engineering faculty, and by 2001 roughly one in 10 professors were women. So faculty members, both male and female, launched the Committee on Status of Women at Caltech to see if bias was to blame, interviewing all 31 female members and the same number of male professors who were at roughly the same stage in their careers.

The results were stark. There were no female division chiefs. Over half of all professors questioned felt that bias had adversely affected the careers of female faculty members. Many women felt isolated from decision-making and suspected they were not receiving equal pay – or equal lab space. So the committee recommended aggressive recruitment, extensive childcare and mentoring to women and appointing female department chairs. The goal was for aiming for a 25 percent female faculty by 2011.

Eleven years in, the effort is a mixed success. Caltech has mentoring programs for students and faculty, larger childcare facilities, and a woman is now chair of the division of chemistry. But the school hasn’t reached its 25 percent – Dr. Hunt estimates that women account for 18 percent – and equal pay remains an issue.

Here’s what was learned.


Bias Is Real


Women typically didn’t talk about bias for fear of being accused of having sour grapes. And scientists, who are trained to think in rational and objective terms, are often reluctant to admit that bias is pervasive in their world. “Scientists don’t draw conclusions about themselves as part of some larger trend because they’re a sample size of one, and that’s just unscientific,” says Dr. Jo Handelsman, a Yale microbiologist who authored a recent study suggesting that both male and female science professors unconsciously favor male students. “But over a career you accumulate enough experiences that may add up to more than just anecdotes.”


We Should Talk About It


Talking helps to change the status quo. It was only when three female professors at MIT began talking to each other about their experiences that they realized bias against women was pervasive and the school began reform efforts. 


Change is Slow in the Ivory Tower


A large corporation might hire thousands of new workers a year, but “we hire at most 10 faculty in very specific fields,” explains Dr. Hunt. And professors often hold their positions for decades. An added difficulty is the academic family – a lot of scientists, tied to the lab for long hours, end up marrying fellow researchers, so an institution looking to recruit women scientists should be in a location that can offer academic prospects for her spouse. 


Pay Parity is Complicated


It’s hard to ensure pay equality in an environment full of niche specialties – a male professor of engineering might make more than a female professor of astronomy, but that’s partly because engineering and astronomy are so different. Also, research dollars flow into labs from government, private or corporate funders and are often not allocated directly by the university.


Mentoring is Key


Currently women are less likely to have a strong mentoring experience, and this may be the most crucial aspect of retaining women in science. “I think it has some pretty devastating consequences,” says Handelsman. “Think of all the experience that students have in college – talking to a professor after class, or getting advice on courses or where to go to grad school. And if you think that all of these interactions are colored by bias, the cumulative effect is really quite enormous.”

It was only when three female professors at MIT began talking to each other about their experiences that they realized bias against women was pervasive and the school began reform efforts. Emily Gadek

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