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Letters from alumni about Women in Science

February 27, 2004

Had Brian E. Hoffman ‘46 applied science to the question of increasing the representation of woman as students and faculty members in the sciences and engineering he would have been forced to see the wisdom of President Tilghman’s arguments.

Science has demonstrated that teachers in particular, and our society in general, consciously and unconsciously apply tremendous energy and skill systematically to prevent girls and women from developing as mathematicians and scientists.

Two small examples of this social conspiracy: Scientific studies show that teachers praise girls for neatness and boys for their ideas, regardless of whether a boy has the neatest homework in the class or a girl the best ideas; teachers systematically call on boys and encourage them in the expression of their thoughts far more frequently than girls, regardless of the relative academic merits represented by gender in a class.

At no time in history have academic departments been able to base selection on a student’s or faculty member’s actual promise because our entire educational system is rigged to deny female promise. As long as the “perceived promise” that Hoffman suggests should be our criteria perceives only male promise we will not promote the world’s best scientists, only the world’s best male scientists.

Hoffman states that “history does not support” the assumption that females will make more valuable contributions than will males. The jury is still out on whether scientists as brilliant and diverse as Einstein and Jung (both of whom I personally admire) stole their greatest ideas from women unfortunate enough to be in love with them. Even if this is not the case, Hoffman’s argument is specious.

For centuries, history did not support the possibility of people manipulating electricity to its own ends, controlling infections with antibiotics or walking on the moon.

Luckily the human race has a capacity for progress. Modern scientific thinkers have uncovered the disguise of “rational arguments” such as Hoffman’s and revealed behind them the unconscious fear many men have of competing with women on a truly level playing field.

Ginna Vogt ‘77
Bellaire, Belgium

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February 13, 2004

Brian Hoffman '46 criticizes President Tilghman's efforts to increase the representation of women in the science and engineering faculty, appealing to logic and fairness to conclude that "consideration of the sex of an applicant always is impermissible." When examined in light of the known facts, however, his arguments do not stand up to scrutiny.

Numerous studies document the fact that females leave the sciences in disproportionate numbers for reasons that have nothing to do with their individual talent or "perceived promise" as Hoffman puts it. (See, for example, the landmark study" Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences" by Seymour and Hewitt, as well as "Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing" by Margolis and Fisher.) Rather, they cite the lack of female role models and the unwelcoming environment fostered by the current predominance of male faculty members. Increasing the representation of women in the faculty is a vital step towards stemming the current hemorrhage in the science and engineering talent pool.

Furthermore, research has also shown that women who do remain in the sciences and engineering often receive less credit than men do for equally valuable contributions – witness MIT's well-known 1999 self-study that found that women faculty experienced inequities in salary, space, and access to resources as compared to their male colleagues of the same academic rank. The women who succeed in the sciences and engineering do so despite the difficulties; attempts to evaluate their "demonstrated accomplishments and perceived promise" are likely to seriously underestimate their true value.

We applaud President Tilghman for leading Princeton's efforts to increase female participation in science and engineering at all levels.

Nicholas Howe '93
Susannah Howe '96
Donna Riley '93
Drew Guswa '94
Glenn Ellis *87

(All the letter-signers are members of science and engineering faculty at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.)

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February 3, 2004

In response to the letter by Brian Hoffman '46, who in his letter criticizes President Tilghman's desire to increase the number of women students and faculty in the sciences and engineering.

Hoffman implies that Princeton's attempt to increase the representation of women in science and engineering risks diluting the faculty with inferior candidates. In reality, Tilghman's policy should improve the quality of the departments by acknowledging the systematic, unfavorable bias against women in academia, where female candidates appear to have less "perceived promise" than comparable male candidates.

Studies have shown that: 1) the same qualifications on a curriculum vita are interpreted differently depending on the sex of the applicant; 2) men are taken more seriously than women by both male and female senior scholars; 3) men are more likely than women to be identified as rising stars and groomed for success [Valian 2000]. These subtle distortions affect every single recommendation and evaluation that a woman ever experiences in her career. Cumulatively these psychological biases represent a formidable barrier for women in academia, resulting in very low percentages of senior female faculty, especially in the sciences and engineering. In my field of computer science, only 15% of the new tenure-track faculty are female, and only 8% at the full professor level.

Princeton should strive to find the best candidates possible, the ones who will truly advance their fields, not just the ones who have been the most successful at working the current hiring system; I applaud President Tilghman for taking strong steps to ensure that Princeton's faculty remains among the best in the world.

Gita Reese Sukthankar '91
Graduate Student
Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon
Pittsburgh, Pa.

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January 31, 2004

I was distressed to read Brian Hoffman's letter regarding women in science. Science is a creative endeavor and as such its practitioners need to come at a problem from many different angles. A homogeneous group is more likely to look at things from a similar angle. Therefore, while any two people may be equally "good" scientists, the point is that a woman may approach a problem differently, and that difference may be responsible for a breakthrough.

The same goes for any minority or under-represented group. To enrich and further the cause of science, or any field, it is imperative to gather not only the best minds, but also a diverse group of minds. And, as has been demonstrated for decades, if a field is seen as predominantly comprised of white males, then female and minority students may feel there is no place for them and will be less likely to pursue that field. We all lose when this happens; therefore we must actively try to recruit the best and most diverse practitioners.

I agree with Professor Hoffman that "demonstrated accomplishments and perceived promise" are the most important criteria; but Princeton clearly perceives promise in difference, and has enriched the University and the larger world immeasurably as a result.

David A. Ganon '84
University of Miami
Coral Gables, Florida

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November 17, 2003

In the November 5 issue President Tilghman presents arguments that Princeton should increase the representation of women as students and faculty members in the sciences and engineering.

Unfortunately she does not support this claim by demonstrating why the increase would be justified. If male and female scientists and engineers can be expected to make equally valuable contributions through research and teaching, then in terms of desired outcomes it makes no difference if a department is staffed only by men, only by women or any mixture thereof. A perceived need to add more women to science and engineering departments in preference to men necessarily assumes that females will make more valuable contributions than will males. History does not support this assumption.

We must be certain that our science and engineering departments base selection of new faculty members solely on demonstrated accomplishments and perceived promise. Consideration of the sex of an applicant always is impermissible.

Brian F. Hoffman M.D. ’46
Professor emeritus, Columbia University
Key Biscayne, Fla.

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