by Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University; John Hennessy,
president of Stanford University; and Susan Hockfield, president
Harvard President Lawrence Summers' recent comments about possible
causes of the under-representation of women in science and engineering
have generated extensive debate and discussion – much of which
has had the untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate
to history rather than to the future.
The question we must ask as a society is not “can women
excel in math, science, and engineering?” – Marie Curie
exploded that myth a century ago – but “how can we encourage
more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these
fields?” Extensive research on the abilities and representation
of males and females in science and mathematics has identified the
need to address important cultural and societal factors. Speculation
that “innate differences” may be a significant cause
of under-representation by women in science and engineering may
rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases.
Why is this so important? Our nation faces increasing competition
from abroad in technological innovation, the most powerful driver
of our economy, while the academic performance of our school-age
students in math and science lags behind many countries. Against
this backdrop, it is imperative that we tap the talent and perspectives
of both the male and female halves of our population. Until women
can feel as much at home in math, science, and engineering as men,
our nation will be considerably less than the sum of its parts.
If we do not draw on the entire talent pool that is capable of making
a contribution to science, the enterprise will inevitably be underperforming
As the representation of women increases in every other profession
in this country, if their representation in science and engineering
does not change, these fields will look increasingly anachronistic,
less attractive, and will be less strong. The nation cannot afford
to lose ground in these areas, which not only fuel the economy,
but also play a key role in solving critical societal problems in
human health and the environment.
Much has already been learned from research in the classroom and
from recent experience on our campuses about how we can encourage
top performance from our students. For example, recent research
shows that different teaching methods can lead to comparable performance
for males and females in high school mathematics. One of the most
important and effective actions we can take is to ensure that women
have teachers who believe in them and strong, positive mentors,
male and female, at every stage of their educational journey –
both to affirm and to develop their talents. Low expectations of
women can be as destructive as overt discrimination and may help
to explain the disproportionate rate of attrition that occurs among
female students as they proceed through the academic pipeline.
Colleges and universities must develop a culture, as well as specific
policies, that enable women with children to strike a sustainable
balance between workplace and home. Of course, achieving such a
balance is a challenge in many highly demanding careers. As a society
we must develop methods for assessing productivity and potential
that take into account the long-term potential of an individual
and encourage greater harmony between the cycle of work and the
cycle of life – so that both women and men may better excel
in the careers of their choice.
Although we have a very long way to travel in terms of recruiting,
retaining, and promoting women faculty in scientific and engineering
fields, we can also point to significant progress. According to
the National Science Foundation, almost no doctoral degrees in engineering
were awarded to women in 1966 (0.3 percent), in contrast to 16.9
percent in 2001. And in the biological and agricultural sciences,
the number of doctorates earned by women rose from 12 percent to
43.5 percent between 1966 and 2001. Our three campuses, and many
others, are home to growing numbers of women who have demonstrated
not only extraordinary innate ability, but the kinds of creativity,
determination, perceptiveness and hard work that are prerequisites
for success in science and engineering, as in many other fields.
These figures demonstrate the expanding presence of women in disciplines
that have not, historically, been friendly to them. It is a matter
of vital concern, not only to the academy but also to society at
large, that the future holds even greater opportunities for them.
John Hennessy is a computer scientist and president of Stanford
University, Susan Hockfield is a neuroscientist and president of
MIT, and Shirley Tilghman is a molecular geneticist and president
of Princeton University.
from Princeton graduate students in science and engineering
Sarah Gasda (environmental engineering):
I am in no position to dispute neurological, biological or behavioral
studies on the differences between the male and female brain and
innate ability to perform well in science and math. But I will say
this: If there are differences in how men and women think and how
our brains function when considering math problems, I am not surprised
and quite probably, I am pleased to hear women are different from
Why should women try to be something they’re obviously not?
I am not saying that women shouldn't be engineers and scientists;
in fact, science and engineering fields need women to join because
the world has been lacking the contribution of the unique female
brain in these fields. Maybe these differences can lead to new ways
of thinking about math and science problems that the men can't come
up with themselves.
We should embrace these differences and think of ways to nurture
girls in science and engineering classes so that they don't get
discouraged in the white, male educational box. We have to think
of ways the educational culture can be changed to stimulate and
reward the unique way girls think about math and science problems.
Redesign tests so that girls aren't at such a disadvantage. Give
girls support when they are discouraged by “low” test
scores so they don't give up so easily. Spread the word about how
much the world can benefit from the female mind if we are just given
the right training. Think about it: Centuries of education for men,
and only 50 years of women being a part of it. Isn't it about time
we reevaluated our educational system? If there are differences
between the male and female brain, then all the more reason ...
We should be proud of our differences and capitalize on them.
The world should know that comments like the ones from the Harvard
president should be taken in their context – that is, in the
context of the classic white male educator. We need to speak out
in our defense. The reason there aren't more women in science and
engineering is because the educational and work environment discourages
women from excelling, because girls don't learn the same way as
boys, and most of all, because society believes men are better at
Kunigunde Cherenack (electrical engineering):
Personally, I don't really care what Mr. Summers has to say about
women and their ability to understand complex algebra. By acknowledging
his comments we are admitting to a degree of insecurity that IS
perhaps more common in women than in men, and that can be detrimental
to scientific endeavors. I think the difference between men and
women, coupled to their success in the sciences, stems more from
a lack of confidence than genetic programming. If we were truly
secure in our abilities, then no amount of psychological debate
could obliterate these simple facts: women have been and will be
highly successful in the sciences. There are bright, talented women
in all fields who are intellectual equals to men and have proved
this conclusively through their work. These are facts, so why do
we all feel so threatened by Mr. Summers’ comments? We should
rejoice in the accomplishments of our fellow female scientists,
instead of spending time getting angry at implied slights. By all
means, educate young girls about the accomplishments of prominent
women in the field. Let them know of the tremendous progress that
has been made by women in the past 20 years. But don't encourage
them to compare themselves to men, and to use male or female accomplishments
as yardsticks for their own success or failure. Every person, whether
male or female, should aim to become the best that they can be and
to make the most of their abilities. No one can force you to feel
inferior. Only you can do that, by accepting the labels that society
tries to pin on you: “girl, genetically inferior, can't do
math.” They're only words, full of sound and fury, signifying
Sharon Betz (electrical engineering):
What is the desired outcome? Do we seek to make each field of
engineering equally populated at all levels by males and females?
If so, do we also seek to make this true in other fields that have
been historically dominated by either women or men? Or do we seek
an equal playing field – where any person, whether a woman
or a man, who is interested in entering and excelling in any given
discipline has the opportunity to do so, to the benefit of the field?
If the goal is the latter, specifically focusing on the percentage
of women in any given population may be helpful as a tool, but it
should not be the only metric.
It may be true that there are differences between the brains of
males and females that affect the ways that they learn and think.
If so, we should examine and, as necessary, modify the systems in
place – vary our teaching methods for different learning styles,
offer support in educational systems and work environments for women
and for men, and attempt to find the best and the brightest men
and women to fill the field of engineering. We should not, however,
dismiss comments merely because they come from someone who is a
white male, for that is no better than dismissing the ambitions
of a young student merely because she is female. We should also
not dismiss comments solely because we find the view represented
to be unpleasant: if there are
fundamental differences between men and women, we should understand
both these differences and their possible consequences to enable
us to implement the most fair and advantageous policies.
If a disproportionate number of men are interested in and skilled
in engineering, we should not view this as failure. What we should
view as failure is the loss of interested and qualified women. Girls
should be encouraged to embrace math, science, and engineering,
along with the humanities and social sciences. When we have come
to the point where females (and males) can pick the field of their
choice and there have a fair opportunity to prosper, we have succeeded
– regardless of the final percentages.
Carole Womeldorf (mechanical engineering – a few
thoughts from a mom, engineer, grad student, and soon-to-be faculty
Perhaps we, as women engineers, should really discuss this in
some detail. I think these thoughts are underlying many of the problems
we are having.
Perhaps there is a “genetic” difference. Perhaps it
is analogous to homosexuality – a spectrum of difference –
and then also just different ways of doing things. So what? If only
15 to 35 percent of women are “optimally” programmed
to be highly spatial engineers or scientists, does that mean we
shouldn’t treat every person as one of those potential few?
And perhaps the middle third, male and female, will be (or are)
our leaders – those who can see both ends of the spectrum.
Is our society under such attack that we are limited to “gender
profiling” to determine the very few we will expend the resources
on? And of course in the balance that is nature, 100 percent of
men are certainly not “optimally” programmed to be highly
spatial engineers. And is engineering or science at large such a
narrow field that we don't need those who are gifted in the intuitive
relationships between molecules, trusses, and supports, or people?
(Here I am assuming that the intuitive is another axis of strength
– where perhaps women are favored 70 to 85 percent over the
average man. I don't know the answers to all of this.)
I strongly believe we need both antenna and power to travel forward
wisely and successfully.
And on another subject: The idea that it is optimal or healthy
for ANY segment of society to work hardcore for 80 hours a week
is absurd. Those few who do should be a VERY select few –
and, in my opinion, clearly not those that we entrust our children
or the future direction of science and engineering to. We need leaders
and teachers and professors who understand the range of human experience
and the impact and relevance of their work (as well as the impact
and relevance of a sullen student, or the some question asked for
the 50th time).
As more than the elite few go to college, it is even more crucial
that our universities value and develop, explore and teach –
and practice – those community values that will heal our society.
When we indulge in and now “normalize” the monastic
life of an 80-hour workweek, we kill the future for ourselves and
our children. The ideal of the “objective,” i.e. distant,
scientist or engineer – and now even English professor –
has warped our society for over 60 years [Ref: Parker J. Palmer,
The Courage to Teach]. As the wall fell in Berlin, now
we need to lower our own walls that inhibit healthy exchanges and
acceptance and appreciation across our “differences,”
and our science. There are intuitive and relational understandings
that will forever elude us and eventually undo us if we stay on
this one-sided, “objective” course.
Perhaps instead of “off with his head,” we should
consider saying “vive la difference!” With the critical
addendum – “to hell with 80-hour workweeks” –
for anyone: fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters
– friends and family anywhere.
Shirley Gaw (computer science):
Is there anything wrong with asking for further research into
the possibility that intrinsic differences between men and women
contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering?
From the leaks to the press, the barrage of publicity, and the subsequent
retraction, the suggestion was at least politically incorrect.
The statement itself may seem innocuous until you apply the same
reasoning to other observed effects. What if I asked for further
research into the possibility that intrinsic differences between
African-Americans and Caucasians contribute to the underrepresentation
of African-Americans in science and engineering? We can use the
same data. African-Americans tend to score lower on standardized
tests. They are underrepresented in the field with respect to historically
recognized leaders and current leaders in academia and industry.
Isn’t it reasonable to ask researchers to investigate the
possibility that genetic differences are a contributing factor?
No, the question is far from innocuous in this context. There are
more obvious reasons for this observed effect.
Gender, like race, can play a statistically significant factor
in biological, psychological, and cultural effects. It is difficult
to lump several of these into the interpretation that genetic differences
cause a lack of occupational success. A significant effect from
an intrinsic factor does not mean a causal relationship exists,
since uncontrolled hidden factors may also exist. Given this issue,
why have this problem motivate your research? True, correlating
gender to different effects may help overcome hindrances. Take the
example of stereotype threat: minority groups, both racial minorities
and gender minorities, tend to perform lower on standardized math
tests when introduced to a negative stereotype of their group. Recognizing
this problem could lead to positive changes that monitor and remove
the negative stereotypes. When we simultaneously attempt to prove
a causal relationship between gender and occupational success, we
promote the stereotype threat. While a genetic difference may play
a part, the layman’s interpretation (women are genetically
hindered from success) enforces a negative stereotype. Congratulations,
we can now realize our predicted effect of stereotype threat.
This is not the first time someone has asked if genetic differences
result in differential representation in science and engineering;
however, each time the question is asked, we can ask in response:
Are we willing to consume resources on this possibility, rather
than consuming resources on removing known barriers that continue
to exist? I prefer to exhaust the more obvious cultural effects
(and combination of effects) than pursue a question that would not
be asked if we had gender parity in the field. It is the unfortunate
observed outcome of underrepresentation of women in the field that
fuels this speculation. Let’s use this publicity to revitalize
and expand a commitment toward removing barriers for underrepresented
groups in science and engineering. Stop the speculation by eliminating
Julia Chen (electrical engineering):
I would be lying if I said that I never wondered about innate
differences between men and women contributing to my lack of female
peers in engineering. But there's never been a doubt in my mind
that those women who are in science and engineering are as bright
as the men in the field. I came to Princeton for graduate school
because of women like President Tilghman; Dean Maria Klawe; my adviser,
Li-Shiuan Peh; and Professor Margaret Mortonosi, the DGS of my department
when I entered. They are brilliant, strong and have contributed
to their fields enormously. Once I arrived at Princeton, I befriended
a group of women who were the best in all disciplines, from sociology
to math to electrical engineering. I was further delighted at the
Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing to discover numerous
other extraordinary women, from Admiral Grace Hopper herself, inventor
of the compiler, to professors like Lydia Kavraki, who uses her
work on robotic simulations to try to find a drug that may cure
AIDS by mapping how drugs fit into receptor sites in our bodies.
I have a whole list of amazing women who have become my role models.
Clearly, women can succeed in science and engineering.
In my own humble observations, I’ve witnessed that men and
women learn in different ways. As some of my fellow women in engineering
have stated above and it has been studied in books like “Unlocking
the Clubhouse,” many teachers and institutions don’t
teach in a way that helps women learn best, nor do they encourage
them to pursue science and engineering, nor do they provide role
models for them. Girls are frequently encouraged to become teachers,
doctors, nurses, lawyers, and publicists, but rarely engineers and
scientists. I've observed that on the whole, we are more interested
in the compassionate applications of engineering, we tend to get
discouraged more easily and we tend to favor balance in our lives
with respect to work, family, hobbies and friends. Too often, academic
institutions and industry alike don't accommodate our need for balance.
My personal theory is that the lack of women in science and engineering
is not because women can't do it, but that they don't want to do
it. Again, drawing from my own personal experience, it is occasionally
an uphill battle to be a woman in engineering because sometimes
it's hard to relate to our male counterparts, a small percentage
of them are still subtly condescending, and the opportunity cost
of devoting our lives to science and engineering may be harder for
us to bear. Again, these are my own personal thoughts, feelings,
and observations. But I truly believe that the women in science
and engineering who want it can be the top of their fields –
it’s just a matter of getting more women to want it. President
Summers was not incorrect in thinking there were innate differences
between men and women, but to say that women are not as successful
as men in the field was incorrect.
After learning of Larry Summers’ remarks that have now been
the subject of considerable media attention, I couldn't quite decide
whether to laugh or cry. You see, his remarks vindicated for me
and many other women faculty in science and engineering that there
remains at all levels of academe a less than hospitable working
environment for women, where blatant discrimination does not exist
but subtle biases, primarily due to the academic culture, abound.
If even the president of Harvard isn't sure whether “innate
differences” between men and women are responsible for the
discouragingly small percentages of women science and engineering
faculty at top research universities, then it is likely that he
is not alone among male academics, or males in other career arenas,
in holding these “doubts.” Apparently Larry Summers,
and plenty of others in the media, remain blissfully unaware of
the many studies that show no statistically significant persistent
difference between boys and girls aptitudes for math. Witness the
Jan. 24, 2005, article in the New York Times by Angier
and Chang about such studies, as well as many others.
I think it is clear why I might have cried. Why might I have laughed?
Perhaps out of relief, because finally, I can turn to all my male
colleagues who keep insisting that there are no more problems for
women in academia and I can tell them what my inner soul has been
saying all these long years: the problems remain, and until systemic
change comes to universities, we will never see equal numbers of
men and women holding science and engineering faculty positions.
I think the media has largely missed the essential reason for
the few numbers of women in these positions, to say nothing of Larry
Summers missing it as well. It has nothing to do with aptitude.
The aptitude is there. Believe me, having chaired faculty search
committees, having spoken with other chairs of faculty search committees,
we all observe the same thing. There are many incredibly
talented women getting their Ph.Ds in science and engineering these
days. And many departments would jump at the chance to hire these
talented women. But they aren't applying. Why? Women are
voting with their feet, to stay out of a culture they perceive to
be unhealthy. To give a new twist to that famous election slogan,
“It's the culture, stupid” (credit for this to Cathy
Trower). Women are the canaries in the coal mines, and by golly
they smell the toxic fumes. To give just a couple of anecdotal statistics,
in chemistry fully one-third of Ph.D’s are now awarded to
women. Yet when I ran a search for a physical chemist at UCLA, my
former institution, only 5 percent of the applicants were women.
A male chair of chemistry at Indiana University the same year asked
me to explain how five out of six of the best Ph.Ds in their department
that year were women, but only 3 percent of his applicant pool were
women. A similar search at UCLA this year to hire a theoretician
yielded only 4 percent female applicants, despite the fact that
40 percent of the Ph.Ds in theoretical chemistry are now earned
by women (American Chemical Society statistics)!
So what is the problem? It dates back centuries. And it is time
to change a centuries-old model that is no longer working for today's
diverse workforce. What is that model? A quote from Dr. Debra Rolison's
recent speech at Barnard says it all: “Academic science still
echoes the standards of David Noble's description of Western science:
‘a world without women,’ one in which round-the-clock
scholarship by men doing science was historically sustained by a
sociological and emotional infrastructure first provided by monasteries
and then by wives.” My female faculty colleagues and I have
wryly joked for years that we need wives. But generally speaking
we don't have that option, and the joke is not very funny. If I
recall the statistics correctly, over half of male academics
have wives who do not work. Women historically have held the
domestic fort together, done the majority of child-rearing, organized
the social calendar, and now on top of that, often have full-time
careers. The idea posited recently in the New York Times
that women might consider putting their careers on hold to do child-rearing
first shows a complete lack of understanding of how science and
engineering (and mathematics) are “done.” If you get
off the merry-go-round after grad school, chances are you will never
get back on, because research and discovery advances too fast and
it is simply too difficult to reengage after years away. At least
that is so in the current culture, which values youthful energy
over maturity – I suspect most departments would not consider
hiring an assistant professor in their 40s, given that they would
not reach a tenure decision until the person was approaching 50,
and people would be too uncomfortable with the idea of firing someone
who is nearing the half-century mark.
Larry Summers remarked that perhaps women didn't want to work
the 80-hour weeks that he suggested was necessary to be at the top
of their profession. I would posit that most people, not just women,
would prefer to work less than 80 hours per week on average, so
that they might have something else going on in their life (for
example, family?) other than their career. Moreover, since when
is quantity valued over quality? Since having my own family, my
work hours became curtailed to the more usual nine-hour days instead
of 12 or more; did this curb my success as a faculty member? Not
on your life. Why? Because I just learned how to be more efficient
with every precious work minute I had during the day, so that I
would be able to concentrate on my family when I go home.
Frankly, I thought Nancy Hopkins' retort that she works 80 hours
per week was not helpful to the cause of bringing more women into
science and engineering. Of course, at times, we all have to work
round-the-clock to catch up, beat deadlines, etc. But to point out
that we do so simply states we can survive in the male-specified
status quo. Is this really what we want? Is it really what men who
want to have substantive involvement with their families really
want? I posit that anyone who works routinely 80 hours per week
is not getting to know their spouse or child or children or friends
very well. Why should we argue that we are up to adapting to the
male-specified culture, as Nancy Hopkins seemed to? That will not
bring more women into academic science.
No, most women are voting with their feet. And here is the crux
of the issue: women want to have what most men have,
which is to not have to choose between family and career. They
want both. And they should have it. But the current culture of round-the-clock
science does not make it possible to do both without enormous
sacrifice. Women have figured out the culture, having lived
in it as graduate students. They see that by taking jobs in companies,
which often have good on-site child care, and where the expectation
is that one works hard but not overtime, which allows for both family
and career to blossom, is a means to not have to choose
between career and family. Men generally do not even think consciously
that a choice has to be made; they just go for the career, that
round-the-clock ultra-competition, and often the wife will take
care of everything else. Well, women do not have that option. And
we are here, as good as men, and we want a place at the table.
To make that happen in significant numbers is going to require
restructuring of the enterprise. It will require on-site, high-quality
child care, so prospective women faculty see with their own eyes
it is possible to have both. But that is only the start. Women faculty
also need support for other functions that wives would ordinarily
supply; I think that a domestic help benefit provided by Universities
would be a good place to start. Princeton University has taken some
positive steps to try to provide some support. Witness, for example,
a new program instigated by the Dean of Faculty to provide a small
salary supplement to help pay for a caregiver so a faculty member,
male or female, can go present their research at a conference.
In closing, I think it is also worth pointing out the urgency
of this issue. We are experiencing across the nation a wave of retirements
in science and engineering now and over the next decade unseen in
the history of this nation (due to the expansion of science and
engineering faculty in the 1960s after Sputnik). It is a possible
time to make real changes in the system and change the tremendous
gender imbalance on our faculties, but only if we make changes NOW.
Otherwise, it will be another 40 years before another opportunity
arises to change the face of academic science; when the new crop
of faculty hired now retire. I'd hate to wait that long.
Emily Carter is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
and applied and computational mathematics at Princeton.