Bridging the Gender Gap in Science and Technology
President Shirley M. Tilghman
October 1, 2010
Friesen Lecture, Presented at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
It is an extraordinary pleasure to be on the Queen's campus again. It seems like just yesterday — although in truth it was 46 years ago — that I first stepped on this beautiful campus, a prairie girl from Winnipeg, almost beside herself with excitement and anticipation. And Queen's did not disappoint. The next four years were transformative for me, and go a long way to explaining why I became a scientist. At Queen's I had the benefit of faculty, particularly in the chemistry department, who took me seriously as a budding scientist, and who gave me challenging projects on which to cut my teeth. Professor Saul Wolfe provided me with my first research experience as a second-year student, which by luck more than ability turned into a significant discovery of a new pathway for the synthesis of penicillin de novo, a patent, and my first scientific publication. As I told an audience in Ottawa on Wednesday, after that experience, I could not not have become a scientist. Professors Alfred Norris and Walter Szarek tutored me through research opportunities in my third and fourth years, which while less successful, taught me about the need for optimism and perseverance in science. But perhaps the greatest gift I received came from Professor Wallace Breck, surely one of the kindest and most beloved professors at the time, who sat me down in my fourth year and told me that I was not destined to be a great chemist. He was right, and I knew it. This was one of the most courageous and generous things a teacher can do for a student, for that conversation eventually led me to molecular biology, which turned out to be a much better fit for my talents.
This is the second of two lectures associated with the Friesen International Prize in Health Research, which was established by the Friends of Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences in honor of Henry G. Friesen, a biomedical scientist who has served his country with distinction as a medical endocrinologist, a professor of physiology, and a visionary leader in the field of health-related research. When I asked your Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf if there was a topic he would like me to speak about today, he hit upon one that has been a passion of mine for many years — the advancement of women in science, mathematics, and engineering.
There is something fitting about delivering this lecture at Queen's, where my own career began. I have been asked many times if I experienced episodes of overt discrimination during my formative years in university or graduate school in the 1960s and early 1970s, clearly expecting that I would regale the listener with horror stories of victimization at the hands of male chauvinists. Interestingly, I am convinced that one of the reasons I persisted in believing I could and would be a scientist was that no one ever told me otherwise — from my father, who thought I could do anything I set my mind to; to my professors, who were always very supportive at Queen's; to my postgraduate mentors, who strengthened my resolve and thickened my skin. But let me be clear — I am not for one moment suggesting that there was not a pervasive attitude at the time that science was not meant to be the domain of women; it was rather that I was insulated from those signals by supportive parents and mentors. So I am twice grateful to Queen's — for both the splendid quality of the education I received and the self-confidence it instilled in me that I was on the right track.
Let me fast-forward 40-odd years to consider the status of women in science and engineering today. In a highly symbolic development, women have, for the first time, earned a majority of the doctorates awarded in the United States, based on newly released figures from the Council of Graduate Schools, capping a trend that has seen their enrollment surpass that of men at the bachelor's and master's levels. There is, in fact, a growing concern that males are falling through the cracks of the American educational system long before they reach our campuses, creating a different kind of gender gap from the type we are accustomed to discussing.
But if women have made great strides in their pursuit of higher education in general since Princeton's first tenured female professor likened her reception on our all-male campus in 1966 to the landing of a Martian, they remain significantly under-represented in the sciences and engineering. In 2008, to use Queen's own statistics, 78 percent of the full and part-time doctoral candidates in computer science were male, as were 81 percent in engineering, 80 percent in mathematics, and 72 percent in the physical sciences. These figures are not dramatically different from national data assembled by the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, where men claimed between 67 and 78 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in these fields in 2008-2009. In sharp contrast to both sets of figures, men accounted for a much narrower majority of doctoral candidates in agriculture and biology at Queen's — 57 percent — while women actually mustered a bare majority of doctoral degrees awarded in the biological and agricultural sciences throughout the United States. This highlights a significant bifurcation within the sciences in terms of gender distribution, and raises a question that I will take up later in my talk.
Since doctoral studies form the gateway to the professoriate, it should come as no surprise that our faculties also manifest the gender gap in science and technology. As of this fall, to turn to my own institution, 86 percent of Princeton's full-time faculty in engineering are men, as are 80 percent of those in the natural sciences. In 2001, when I took office, these figures stood at 90 percent and 85 percent respectively, so we have made some progress, but not as much as I would like, despite a strong institutional commitment to doing so. And while this imbalance is not confined to the natural sciences and engineering, a look at long-term trends suggests that the humanities and social sciences have been more successful in their pursuit of greater gender parity. Between 1981 and 2010, for example, the percentage of full-time female faculty in the humanities at Princeton rose by 21 percentage points, compared to 10 in engineering and 15 in the natural sciences, a figure that would be even lower if the life sciences were factored out.
We can and should do better, though I would have thought we had reached a point when the government of Canada could have found a woman of international standing to fill at least one of its 19 newly established Canada Excellence Research Chairs. As many of you know, these are designed to encourage world-class research and innovation at Canadian universities in four priority areas, including the life sciences — the area of science where women have made the strongest inroads. What many in Canada found particularly galling was the fact that women did not even make the short list of 36 candidates. As a female scientist at Simon Fraser University put it, "That this sort of thing can still happen is an embarrassment for Canada and profoundly demoralizing for the women scientists of this country."
But Canada is not alone in suffering this kind of public embarrassment. Virtually the identical scenario played out south of the border in 2004 when the National Institutes of Health inaugurated its Pioneer Awards, designed to identify exceptionally creative leaders in the field of health sciences and to support them generously for an extended period of time. As with the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the first awards went to nine men. How can this happen, you might ask, in a field in which women are both well represented and thriving? In the Monday morning quarterbacking that went on after the announcement, two things immediately stood out. First, research universities were asked to nominate a small number of candidates, which meant that the pool was being constructed by deans and department chairs, who tend to be overwhelmingly male. Second, the teams that vetted the candidates were also overwhelmingly male — 60 out of 64 reviewers. I gather that a similar bias was evident in the selection of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. The next year the selection process was significantly modified, and now women are winning these awards in reasonable numbers. This is a cautionary tale whose lesson is captured by a woman astrophysicist at Princeton as follows: "Eternal vigilance." In other words, we are not yet at a place where attention to gender can be dispensed with.
I would like to pose two questions in this lecture: Does it matter if women take part in scientific discovery? And when will we know that it is time to declare victory? So to the first question: Why should we care about the gender of our scientists and engineers? After all, for the last 50 years North America has clearly enjoyed a dominant position in the world of scientific research and technological innovation without the full participation of women.
In response, I would begin by appealing to broad self-interest — I have always found this to be a tried and true way to achieve a political or social goal. As the financial services industry likes to say, "past performance is no guarantee of future results," and in a world that is more competitive and less bound by time and space than ever before, we are going to have to attract to science and engineering more than our fair share of the world's best minds. To restrict our pool of talent, either intentionally or unintentionally, by discouraging women — or under-represented minorities for that matter — from pursuing careers in these fields is to tie one arm behind our backs.
The second argument in favor of increasing the number of women engaged in scientific and technological pursuits also appeals to self-interest, in this case the self-interest of the very fields in which they are under-represented. If women continue to be few and far between in disciplines ranging from theoretical physics to mechanical engineering, these disciplines will look increasingly anachronistic to both male and female students, and we will risk losing the most talented among them, who will, after all, have an infinite range of career options from which to choose. As law, medical, and business schools reach gender parity in their student bodies, our nations' science departments and engineering schools will become increasingly unattractive vis-à-vis those fields.
Thirdly, it is fundamentally unjust for a profession to deliberately exclude — whether by sins of commission or omission — a significant proportion of the population on the basis of gender. For every girl who dreams of becoming a scientist or engineer, there is an obligation on our part to do everything we can to ensure that her chances rest on her abilities and her determination, just as they do for her male counterparts. It is not sufficient for educational institutions — or any of us — to accept the status quo, invoke historical explanations for the situation, or bemoan the difficulty of changing cultural norms. As Pogo famously said, "I've seen the enemy, and he is us."
The last argument I would like to put forth for expanding the ranks of female scientists and engineers leads into the second question I have posed this morning. It has been my experience that the scientific interests of women are not always completely coincident with those of their male colleagues. I am not suggesting that women conduct scientific inquiry differently from men — the scientific method is universal — but I have been struck by how often the problems that intrigue women are not always exactly the same as those that attract men. Take, for example, one of the most distinguished scientists in the United States and a recipient of last year's Nobel Prize in medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn from the University of California, San Francisco. She was working on an obscure organism called Tetrahymena, better known to non-biologists as pond scum, in the 1990s. She had a compelling reason for doing so — these ciliated protozoa have a lot of very small chromosomes and thus a lot of chromosome ends, and that was what Dr. Blackburn was interested in studying. At the time, few people worked on Tetrahymena, and the field was considered a backwater — no pun intended. You can just imagine what a cocktail party conversation stopper it would be to announce that you work on pond scum! Thanks to her willingness to go where others would not, she made a major discovery, namely, how the structures at the ends of chromosomes are synthesized, and not just those of Tetrahymena, but yours and mine as well. It is stories like this that persuade me that by encouraging women to embrace a life in science or engineering, we will very likely increase the range of problems under investigation, thereby broadening and strengthening the entire research enterprise.
So, if you are persuaded that we have good reasons to bridge the gender gap in science and technology, we need to determine why this gap exists and, in the process, what we should be doing to achieve a different outcome. Let me begin with something on which there is wide agreement, namely, the sociocultural forces that have historically led to women's under-representation in the sciences and engineering. These are long-standing, insidious, and, as I have suggested, in no one's interest to perpetuate. They have their roots in childhood, when boys and girls confront dissimilar parental, scholastic, and societal opportunities and expectations. Social psychologists have exhaustively documented the disparate experience of males and females pursuing studies in male-dominated disciplines, particularly in fields where there is a pervasive assumption that women are less able. The existence of such assumptions can lead to "stereotype threat," a phenomenon originally identified by Claude Steele of Columbia University and his colleagues in which targets of stereotypes perform less well when they are reminded of the possibility that their performance may confirm a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong.
In one study, for example, women performed more poorly on a math test in the presence of men than they did when men were absent, and this deficit actually grew as the number of men increased. Men, in contrast, were unaffected by the number of women in the room. Unfortunately, the women most likely to be adversely affected are those with the greatest ability, precisely because they are so intent on disproving the negative stereotype. This may help to explain why the gap between male and female scores on a widely used measure of American scholastic aptitude, the math SAT, is largest in the most gifted population. It also explains why single-sex institutions have produced a disproportionate number of female scientists and engineers in the past.
I came face-to-face with just how enduring sociocultural stereotypes can be early in my tenure as president of Princeton when I appointed a number of women to senior positions. I had also appointed an even larger number of male administrators, and, in every instance, I chose the person I believed would be the best person for the job. However, this was not the view of some observers, who saw in my female appointments the twenty-first-century equivalent of John Knox's "monstrous regiment of women." To quote one letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, "We now have a lady president and a lady second in command . ... To save time, I recommend that the trustees promptly convert Princeton to a single-sex, female university and be done with it." Another writer helpfully suggested that we change the name of his alma mater to "Princesstonia University."
But frankly, it was the views of students that I found most dismaying. At the time of the appointment of Janet Rapelye as dean of admission in 2003, Princeton's student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, reported that 44 percent of students thought gender was a factor in her selection, 32 percent did not think so, and 22 percent were undecided. Here was a significant percentage of a student body composed of remarkably intelligent and ambitious young men and women concluding that the only conceivable way in which a woman could be appointed dean of admission — an increasingly female-dominated field, by the way — was through the exercise of affirmative action. The reason? Fewer women were being appointed to comparable positions at Yale and Harvard! It is a measure of the weight of history at Princeton and the persistence of sociocultural norms that long after the advent of co-education in 1969, the appointment of women by a woman was considered news.
The lesson I take away from this episode is the profound impact of sociocultural images — whether of a university administrator or a successful scientist or engineer. These stereotypes are as powerful in the mind of a 13-year-old child as they are in the mind of a reviewer on a grant panel, and they need to be challenged wherever they raise their ugly heads. Indeed, inattention can all too often lead to reversals in hard-won progress.
This brings me to a very practical challenge that women face in crafting a successful career in the sciences and engineering and, indeed, in every field. At the risk of stating the obvious, biology has determined that it is women, not men who bear children. And 40 years after the consciousness raising ignited by the feminist movement, women continue to shoulder the primary responsibility of raising children and taking care of the elderly. In a survey that was conducted at Princeton eight years ago, we found a widespread sentiment among men and women, from junior faculty to department chairs, that it is very difficult for women to succeed professionally in science or engineering while raising children. This notion is reinforced by national surveys, including one by the American Chemical Society, that have documented a very significant disparity in how men and women perceive the difficulty of balancing work and family in their careers — with women listing it as their major challenge, and men reporting that it plays a small role in their professional lives.
It is more difficult to have a career as a woman and raise a family at the same time; there is no point denying this. Some sacrifices are unavoidable. There are books that will remain unread, creative and athletic pursuits that will go unrealized, and friendships that will receive less attention. And there will always, always be late nights and early mornings. My most inventive coping mechanism as a young mother — actually, I was quite an old mother, if truth be told — involved my love of the Sunday edition of The New York Times. In my desperation for a tranquil moment to read this paper, I used to place my toddlers — who are two years apart — in the car and drive aimlessly until the motion put them to sleep. As soon as they were both asleep, I would stop — no matter where we were — and read the paper. I often wonder what people thought of me as I huddled in my car in the middle of winter, frantically trying to get through the next section before my children woke up.
It seems to me that there are two possible remedies for overcoming the persistent difference in the ways in which men and women approach their parenting roles. First, we can hope for a Utopian future in which men and women share parental responsibilities equally. I would argue we have come a considerable distance along this path, but I doubt we will ever reach that Utopian goal, and for a compelling scientific reason. I studied a set of very unusual genes that control the allocation of maternal resources that are delivered to fetuses and newborns — genes whose expression was determined by the parent from whom the genes were inherited. Some of these genes controlled the number of neurons in the brain that produce the neuropeptide hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones, in turn, control maternal behavior and are found at much higher concentration in female brains. Remarkably, one injection of these peptides into the brain of a male rat converts a deadbeat dad into a doting father. For years I told my daughter that I would gauge the suitability of a prospective husband by assessing not the value of his bank account but the level of oxytocin in his circulation!
In the absence of a pharmacological intervention of the kind we can perform on that rat in the lab, we need to recognize — indeed celebrate — the devotion of mothers to their children — and then do everything we can to reconcile that important societal role with being a scientist. I firmly believe that universities can and should lead the way, for we have certain advantages, including much more flexible work schedules than investment banks or law firms. The first step, to paraphrase the American political strategist James Carville, is to recognize "It's daycare, stupid!" — daycare that is of high quality, accessible, and affordable. When we asked our faculty what Princeton could do to improve the environment for its current and future female faculty, the second most frequent response, after hiring more women, was to improve the state of childcare. Quality childcare that is close to the workplace, responsive to the constraints of workday schedules and emergencies, and within the reach of a family's budget is tangible evidence — and a powerful symbol — that an institution understands the complex lives of its students, faculty, and staff. To provide support when daycare won't work, we have instituted a program in which a phone call at 7 a.m. will bring to your home within the hour a certified caregiver who is able to do everything from sit with your sick child to wait for the Maytag repairman.
We have also offered one-year tenure extensions for each child and workload relief to new parents — male and female — but we discovered that men tended to take advantage of the tenure extension more often than women, who were afraid that requesting the extra year would be interpreted as a sign of weakness or lack of confidence. To overcome this problem, we have changed the policy so that the extension is granted automatically. The tenure review process itself needs to be carefully monitored to ensure that it is truly rewarding excellence. We need to be wary of the numbers game — so many articles, so many citations, and so many dollars generated by such and such an age — and weigh the true quality of the work produced by our faculty, male and female alike.
Finally, we need to recognize and celebrate highly accomplished female scientists and engineers who have successfully balanced the demands of motherhood and professional advancement — women like Carol Greider, a brilliant molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University and a protégé of Elizabeth Blackburn, with whom she shared the Nobel Prize in medicine last year. She has two young children, and it is, I think, significant that the first question she fielded in an interview with The New York Times was this: "Is it true that you were doing laundry when you got that early morning call from Stockholm?" The answer was yes, and it dispelled the notion that great scientists have neither the time nor the temperament to engage in domestic work. But even more important were the words with which she closed the interview, words that described her decision to bring her children to the press conference announcing her Nobel. "In the newspapers," she related, "there's a picture of me and my kids right there. How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren't in the picture? That's a big difference, right? And that makes a statement." Yes, it is possible to be a great mother and a great scientist at the same time, and the more widely we proclaim this truth the better.
Women have made significant progress in blasting through glass ceilings since the 1960s, when I began my own career in science, and as long as we continue to follow my friend's mantra of eternal vigilance, more progress will certainly come. But I would like to leave you with the second question that I said I would raise, "When will we know that we can declare victory?" For years I proceeded on the assumption that "victory" was equal participation of men and women in all branches of science and engineering. Today I am not so sure. I keep returning in my mind to Wally Breck's prescient advice to me — that chemistry was not a good match for my talents. He made it very clear that this had nothing to do with intelligence or gender, but rather that chemistry did not come naturally to me — I had to work too hard at it. I didn't really understand what he meant until graduate school, when I discovered that molecular biology did come naturally to me — I could think about it in creative and original ways that I could never do in chemistry. As we learn more about the development of the mammalian brain, and the significant impact that gender plays in utero, it is possible that we will come to understand that some fraction of the asymmetries in the distribution of women among the sciences — with women far more well represented in the life sciences and less so in the physical sciences — is the result of women seeking those fields in which they are able to make the greatest contribution. As scientists, I think we need to be open to this possibility.
To be sure, this is dangerous terrain. In the words of Godfrey Pearlson, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University's School of Medicine, "To say ... that men are automatically better at some things than women is a simplification. It's easy to find women who are fantastic at math and physics and men who excel in language skills. Only when we look at very large populations and look for slight but significant trends do we see the generalizations." Generalizations, of course, are all too often misunderstood and misappropriated to limit the aspirations of individuals. Untangling the impact of the sociocultural forces I have been discussing from the preferences of women for scientific problems will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible. All we can do is create within our educational institutions a perfectly level playing field on which women can freely exercise their preferences and realize their scientific aspirations. What we should be striving for is unrestricted opportunity, in which every woman who wishes to pursue a career in science and engineering can do so with the confidence that nothing contrived by human prejudice — conscious or unconscious — stands in her way.
If we are vigilant, and as women continue to transcend the gender gap in science and technology in ever greater numbers and place their own stamp on these fields, men and women can both look forward to a scientific enterprise — and a society — that is fairer, stronger, and more fulfilling for all.