Tilghman, faculty call for efforts to support women in science

The recent debate about the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering has been too focused on old, previously settled questions and has avoided forward-looking discussions of how to fix the problem, according to a statement prepared jointly by President Tilghman and the presidents of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"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?'" the presidents wrote.

Tilghman, Stanford President John Hennessy and MIT President Susan Hockfield, who are all scientists, wrote the statement in response to the recent public debate about the possible reasons why fewer women than men pursue careers in science and engineering. Much of the debate has focused on speculation by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers that "innate differences" are a significant reason for the imbalance. This suggestion tends to "rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases," the presidents wrote, noting that extensive research has pointed to cultural and societal factors rather than biological differences.

Tilghman and colleagues emphasized that addressing the imbalance is of critical national importance at a time when the United States is lagging behind other nations in preparing students for careers in math and science, which have traditionally been powerful drivers of the economy. "Against this backdrop, it is imperative that we tap the talent and perspectives of both the male and female halves of our population," the presidents wrote.

"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," they wrote. "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 its potential."

Effecting a culture change

The comments by Tilghman and her fellow presidents complement numerous other public statements by Princeton faculty in the last month.

On Jan. 18, six Princeton scientists and engineers -- engineering dean Maria Klawe, psychologist Joan Girgus, biologist Virginia Zakian, computer scientist Andrea LaPaugh and mechanical and aerospace engineers Emily Carter and Pino Martin -- signed an open letter published by the Society of Women Engineers rejecting the idea of innate differences in scientific ability between men and women. The authors urged the scientific community to "address the multitude of small and subtle ways in which people of all kinds are discouraged from pursuing interest in scientific and technical fields."

In an article published in the Daily Princetonian, Carter argued that the culture of academic science and engineering plays a major role in deterring the many women who earn Ph.D.s from continuing their careers in academia. She said that while women account for more than a third of all Ph.D. recipients in some scientific fields, searches to fill open faculty slots in those fields often attract fewer than 5 percent female candidates. "Women are voting with their feet, to stay out of a culture they perceive as unhealthy," Carter wrote.

A specific problem, wrote Carter, is a male-dominated culture that regards working "80-hour weeks" as a prerequisite for success. "Women want what most men have: to not choose between family and career," she wrote. "The current culture makes this possible only with enormous sacrifice. Women figure out the culture, living in it as graduate students. By contrast, they see industry jobs, often with on-site child care, allowing both family and career to blossom. Then why should they choose academe?"

Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Princeton biologists Bonnie Bassler, Jane Flint and Elizabeth Gavis also rejected the idea that an 80-hour work week is necessary for success in science. "In our experience," the biologists wrote, "having children impels women to become organized, efficient and effective. Time becomes a valuable commodity, so it is used judiciously."

In their statement, Tilghman, a molecular geneticist, Hennessy, a computer scientist, and Hockfield, a neuroscientist, called for a culture change to enable women with children to strike a balance between work and home life.

"Of course, achieving such a balance is a challenge in many highly demanding careers," they wrote. "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."

They also noted the importance for women of "teachers who believe in them and strong, positive mentors, male and female, at every stage of their educational journey."

"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," they wrote.

The presidents pointed to signs of progress. While almost no doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 1966, the number had grown to 16.9 percent in 2001. During the same period, in the biological and agricultural sciences, the percentage grew from 12 to 43.5. A 2003 task force report commissioned by Tilghman showed similar advances at Princeton, but also identified significant challenges that remain in eliminating the imbalances between men and women in scientific and technical fields.

Such statistics "demonstrate the expanding presence of women in disciplines that have not, historically, been friendly to them," the presidents wrote. "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."