Women in Science: Equity

Women are underrepresented in science. And they remain underrepresented despite many efforts in the last few decades to address the disparities. With a sense that science can only benefit from increased as well as more diverse participation, we may ask: why the inequities?

One thing seems certain: differences in cogni-tive ability are not the main factor--if they exist at all (see Brush, 1991). One may well ask, in fact, whether ability is relevant, ethically, to equity in any field. What does equity in science mean? Should we exclude or discourage any person (female or not) from pursuing or participating in science based on their intellectual ability? When phrased in this way, clearly not. Every scientist is not nor need not be a Nobel Prize winner, nor need one make monumental theoretical insights or discoveries to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Nor should abilities be presupposed and opportunities precluded when a variety of skills can be nurtured and shaped. The evidence for significant sexual differences in scientific ability does not exist--but even if it did, it would not be relevant. The first damaging myth educators might help debunk is the "differences-in-ability" stereotype and its assumed role in determining interest or participation in science.

The stereotype runs deep, however, and surfaces in ways that teachers sensitized to the issue may not even realize. The effect on female students can be subtle--as modest as variations in response when boys versus girls ask questions, make mistakes, or contribute to class discussion. Can you guess who is called on more frequently, and more often encouraged with a second chance to answer a question? Who is allowed to disagree with the teacher and engage in debate, and whose views are considered "un-remark-able"? Modest solutions may include, depending on the context: waiting longer when asking a question to allow hesitant students time to formulate a confident response; noting an imbalance in who contributes to a class discussion--even without actively inviting participation; open praise for good work done privately by individuals with less public profile; offering support to individuals one-on-one outside class time; or getting classes to work as an ensem-ble and constructing a framework where students enlist support from all their peers. All of these strategies merely represent good teaching, but the feminist perspective reminds us of their significance.

We may also want to sensitize students--particularly male students--to the ways in which society frames "scientific" images outside the scientific forum. Stephen Brush (1991) notes an advertisement for diamonds with a woman's photo, captioned: "A carat or more. Because you were never very good at fractions." Brush asks appropriately, "What message does it convey to women readers of a magazine about science and engineering?" Students may well have fun bringing such images to class--perhaps along with other forms of scientific stereotyping--and posting them on a special bulletin board or section of wall for all to note. (One may marvel, as always, how extra credit serves as an incentive for such exercises.)

Many have been concerned about the style of teaching or testing or about the content of various subjects--or what in education turns women away from science. But one may well ask what draws women into science and keeps them there. Lois Arnold (1984) looked at four women scientists from the 19th century, a period when most things worked against their role in science. The most significant factor in each case was a mentor or cluster of persons who conveyed their interest in science. These persons served both as role models and as encouraging individuals, within the family and outside of it. The education of the four women varied considerably and was largely driven by their interests and needs. Apparently, women can find their way into science and learn when the environ-ment itself is supportive. As Muriel Lederman reminds us, our vision and support of girls as potential Westinghouse winners or Nobel laureates means that they can/will begin to think of themselves this way.

Having role models may thus be critical. Women scientists visiting the classroom is probably ideal. Yet role models may also be drawn from history and seen as part of a rich tradition of women in science. Rossiter (1982) and Ogilvie (1986) are now standard references--and new books are always appearing. Two recent additions are: Mozans, Women in Science (a republished 1913 volume), and Kass-Simon and Farnes (eds.), Women of Science (reviews to follow in subsequent issues).

Constructing role models from history is not just a matter of documenting women's achieve-ments, however. One wants to portray active research or women engaged in and excited by scientific inquiry. Role models in science are models, in part, because one can see how they do good science [see case studies].

Women may also find critical support in all-female groups. In the past, women's colleges, for example, were vital sources of women scientists (Kistiakowsky and Tidball, 1976). One recent study showed that girls in an elective same-sex calculus class did better than their counterparts in mixed-sex classrooms. One need not overhaul entire class arrangements to provide an option for all-girl work groups (in lab or in outside study groups).

Representation may be only part of the problem of women in science, however. Women researchers are sometimes excluded by being separated from the dominant tradition by being directed either into peripheral areas of study or lower level work, or by being excluded from the social information networks. Anthropologist Sharon Traweek reports, for example, that women particle physicists in Japan are not entitled to ask the "big" (more prestigious) questions or to examine the tracks from particle accelerators where new particles might be found. They are left instead to sort through the large volume of less interesting tracks and search for anomalies or more subtle patterns. Statistics merely on the number of women in science would disguise this different "sort" of inequity.

This is not to say that women have not in some cases applied their minds creatively to conquer their second-rate situation. Some women-physicists in Japan have formed a clever alliance involving students and Japanese manufacturers: the women encourage the computer designers to create new, more sophisticated machinery to deal with the high volumes of data, providing them with a ready and demanding testing ground for developing their new technology; the students, on the other hand, gain expertise in the new equipment--and join the women's labs because they will have jobs virtually waiting for them when they graduate! Science "wins" in the meanwhile from the women "negotiating" a difficult situation. Such innovative solutions do not, of course, alleviate the problem of women's status within science.

The other major form of inequity within science occurs when fields that have been established by women or that have attracted large numbers of women suffer from their relative lack of prestige or authority. Thus food science is not considered central to either organic chemistry or biology, though food is obviously central to both. Louisa Allen's work in early "domestic science" the 1870s is exemplary science. Allen's 1877 lab notebooks, for example, document an analysis of water from fire hydrants in Chicago; microscopic examination of coffee for chicory; and a chemical comparison of natural and artificial vanilla extract. She was concerned about the adulteration of commercial products, such as the use of copper to turn pickles green and the use of arsenic and other poisons in dyeing clothes. Allen's students studied the structure of cereal grains; the effect of temperature on the growth of yeast; principles of heating and ventilation; impurities in baking powder; etc. Such exemplars support our common claim that the methods of science are relevant precisely because they can be applied to address common, "real-life" questions. Yet while Allen had founded a School of Domestic Science at Illinois Industrial University (now the Univ. of Illinois) in 1874, by 1881 it had been abolished--by a new president who considered the School a frivolous innovation (see Arnold, 1984). Home economics, the successor to Allen's domestic science, has suffered a less severe, though certainly similar treatment: home economics survives, but it is peripheral in its status as a science. The status of science by and "for" women is part of the equity problem.

Eliminating inequity in science is not a matter of merely being fair. In some cases one needs to remedy past injustices by apportioning more time to female students (see Ethics Case Study, p. 9). It is also not easy. Teachers must invest extra personal effort to reorient course material and labs, or to attend to behavior more consciously. And it can take courage to examine one's own attitudes. But the outcome, most would agree, is well worth the effort.


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