Female Leaders Of Science Report Cracks In Glass Ceiling

More women are attaining policymaking positions, but the pipeline issue and significant barriers to advancement remain Women are becoming increasingly visible at leadership levels in science. M.R.C. Greenwood, the former associate director in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, likes to point out that in recent years women have headed the two most important Cabinet departments related to science-the departments of Energy and Health and Human Services. Additionally, she notes, women h

Nov 24, 1997
Robert Finn


More women are attaining policymaking positions, but the pipeline issue and significant barriers to advancement remain
Women are becoming increasingly visible at leadership levels in science. M.R.C. Greenwood, the former associate director in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, likes to point out that in recent years women have headed the two most important Cabinet departments related to science-the departments of Energy and Health and Human Services. Additionally, she notes, women have held leadership roles at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and many scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Cell Biology.


LEGISLATION: Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) introduced the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Act earlier this month.
But does this mean that the glass ceiling-the barrier that lets women see the upper levels of scientific leadership while preventing them from actually attaining these levels- has been shattered forever? While some women policymakers interviewed by The Scientist believe that large cracks, at the very least, have appeared in the ceiling, other observers of women in science point out that significant barriers to advancement still exist and that this is no time for complacency.

"I certainly never imagined when I was younger that I would see many of these very powerful science policy positions held by women," states Greenwood, who has been chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, since July 1996. "And that has happened, and as a consequence people more easily think of women doing these jobs than they used to. . . . I just happen to be an optimist. And so I see the glass as more than half full rather than less than fully full. I don't think it means that there are no problems, and there are some fields where it's still very difficult for women to gain acceptance. . . . But I'm not one of the folks who would say that things haven't gotten better. I think they have gotten a lot better."


'FAIRLY DRAMATIC': Five of the top seven positions in the office of the director of NIH are held by women, notes NIH's Ruth Kirschstein.
Ruth L. Kirschstein, the deputy director of NIH, agrees with Greenwood. She notes that five of the top seven positions in the office of the director of NIH are held by women. "That's fairly dramatic, and I think that indicates that we have changed in that regard considerably."

Yet Catherine J. Didion, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS), is concerned that "people are going to somehow think the problem has been solved and move on to other issues. . . . While the glass is in many ways more than half full, [the contents] could evaporate."

And Mary L. Good, managing member of Venture Capital Investors LLC, based in Little Rock, Ark., points out that the appearance of a glass ceiling at the highest levels of scientific leadership can be deceiving. "These things are all in the eye of the beholder. There's a glass ceiling for everybody in science in the sense that the number of people who make it up to very top levels is not very big, men or women." Good should know. A former American Chemical Society president, she served as undersecretary for technology at the Department of Commerce until retiring this year.


MIND SET: Stereotypes about competent women managers being tough or masculine still exist, contends Mills College's Edna Mitchell.
But the lack of room at the top is not whole story, says Edna Mitchell, a professor of education and director of the Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Referring to Greenwood, Mitchell comments, "Now, she has had an exceptional career. And there are other women who have. We can look at those examples in a couple of different ways. One way is to be glad that they're there and that progress is being made. But they don't compare with the numbers of men who are in similar [positions]. It's not 50/50 at the top. It's not 50/50 midway. The glass ceiling still exists for women in science, and there are more women who are bumping into it than ever before.

"Yes there are lots of women who are now visible," continues Mitchell. "And we certainly have made progress. But there still is a condition of almost tragic waste for women who are capable of advancing and not able to advance [when] men are going right past them because of the culture, because of the work environment, because of their own history and life circumstances."

In October 1994 the Mills Women's Leadership Institute hosted a national Women in Science Summit that brought together 52 leading female scientists. According to Mitchell, the summit was the occasion for an "outpouring of personal anguish," which led to a series of recommendations outlined in the report "Advancing Women's Leadership in Science: An Action Plan to the Year 2000" (see accompanying story).

The sociological causes of women scientists' failure to advance as fast and as far as men were examined in Project Access, a study conducted by sociologist Gerhard Sonnert, a research associate in Harvard University's physics department, with the assistance of Gerald Holton, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of History of Science at Harvard (R. Finn, The Scientist, Nov. 13, 1995, page 1). They found that while outright institutional discrimination used to be the primary factor keeping women from rising in science, these days many other factors come into play.

For example, in the Project Access study 62 percent of the married women, but only 19 percent of the married men, had a spouse with a doctorate. Often it is difficult for dual-career couples to find equivalent positions, and since the women tended to marry men who were older and more established in their careers, the women's careers tended to take a back seat. Additionally, a woman may run into the "three-clock" problem: attempting to synchronize her biological clock, her career clock, and her partner's career clock.

"There certainly have been barriers to women rising in science," recalls Greenwood. "The biggest barrier in the past was getting admitted to graduate programs. Certainly when I started my career it was commonly believed that women were less likely to succeed and less likely to complete graduate school, and it was not at all uncommon for institutions to restrict the admission of women, some of them even quite flagrantly."

But now, "almost 50 percent of the graduate students in the biological sciences are women, and that's a dramatic shift from 25 to 30 years ago when I entered the field," observes Greenwood.

Still, argues Mitchell, "it's not the numbers of women who go into science, it is what happens to them once they get there."

This concern is echoed by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), whose district includes the NIH campus. "In 1993 women accounted for 22 percent of the science and engineering labor force, which was an increase of 13 percent since 1980," she notes. But many of these women do not pursue scientific careers. "So we're doing more training. We now have to get them to stay there and to begin to expand and to demonstrate leadership."

Women's success in science clearly differs by field. While women are entering the life sciences in almost the same numbers as men, the situation in the physical sciences and engineering is far different.

"We have a bit of a problem," Good acknowledges. "The engineering pipeline has gotten pretty static. In fact, the number of engineering majors who are women has gone down in the last few years. That's not a good sign."


GAINING CREDIBLITY: Anne Petersen at the Kellogg Foundation notes that women in the life sciences are getting experiences needed for leadership positions.
The relative lack of women entering engineering and the physical sciences has consequences at the upper levels of scientific leadership, observes Anne C. Petersen, senior vice president for programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and the former deputy director of NSF. "There has been at least for this century a dominance of physics [in terms] of leadership in science. Women have been very unusual in those fields. So as long as those fields are the dominant ones, we're going to have relatively few women scientists [in leadership positions]."

But, Petersen notes, this may be coming to an end. "The life sciences are really becoming the hot scientific frontiers. . . . There are plenty of women in the life sciences, and they're getting all the kind of experiences that would be needed in order to be credible in various leadership positions."

Things may also be worse for women in academia. "In federal agencies I think it is changing rapidly. In academia things I think have moved a little more slowly," Kirschstein observes.

Kirschstein, who began her career at NIH in 1957 and was the first woman to be director of an NIH institute (the National Institute of General Medical Sciences), explains that "in government, high-level positions do not have to be [held by] individuals who have made their mark as outstanding researchers. . . . In universities, on the other hand, moving into high-level administrative academic positions requires you generally to be one of the outstanding tenured faculty members."

"In the academic community there are some serious problems," agrees Good. "If you look at the life sciences, women have done reasonably well in academia. [However,] they're still not an appropriate proportion of full professors and deans and that sort of thing. If you look at the physical sciences, they've done abysmally. Chemistry, for example, which has one of the largest numbers of women in Ph.D.'s, still only has about 3 percent of full professors who are women."

Then there are the cultural stereotypes. "The general cultural rule that women are not competent as managers unless they are very, very tough, or very masculine, that still prevails in a general way," explains Mitchell. "There is still a mind set that it's the man in the shop who really is capable of making the decisions, of managing the resources and the budget decisions. It's a male culture in almost every field of science."

And that male culture-primarily a white male culture, maintains Petersen-tends to be self-perpetuating. "The problem is not so much that these white men aren't good," she remarks. "I think in general they're outstanding. The problem is . . . that they frequently-at times we all do this-tend to think of people like [themselves] when we're asked to suggest others for positions of honor or status. So there are some missed opportunities in terms of beginning to diversify leadership for the future, and we need to watch that very carefully.

"It's one of the reasons I decided to stay in administration," continues Petersen. "I realized that women of accomplishment weren't going to be noticed without at least some women in a position to bring their accomplishments to the attention of others."

One of the problems in increasing the number of women in leadership positions is simply having qualified names available in a timely fashion. Petersen points out that many people who are asked to nominate candidates for important positions suddenly realize that they can't readily put their hands on a list of names. "This is especially true of government: The names will be due in three days. And there always is a pool of past nominees in any agency or scientific society. But frequently those are white men. If you want to have to have a slightly different pool, you've got to be prepared."


NEXT PROBLEM: AWIS's Catherine Didion is afraid that that people are going to think the glass-ceiling problem has been solved.
Additionally, often "the same names keep coming up, and you can only take on so many advisory groups or study groups or presidential commissions until your dance card is full," notes AWIS's Didion.

AWIS developed the National Registry of Women in Science (http://www.awis.org/ html/registry.html) to solve those problems. Established in the spring of 1997, the registry contains detailed information on 6,000 women scientists, with more being added every day. The service is currently free both to women who wish to be listed and to organizations who are looking for lists of appropriate names.

And AWIS is taking a legislative approach as well. Working with Morella, who sits on the House Committee on Science and chairs the Subcommittee on Technology, Didion in 1992 helped to craft legislation that would have appointed a commission to study the advancement of women in science. The legislation, called WISE for Women in Science and Engineering, passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate in 1993.

Morella introduced a similar bill on November 9. This time she named her bill (HR-3007) the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Act. She added the word "technology" to emphasize what she calls the "silicon ceiling" that makes it even more difficult for women to advance in technological professions than in scientific ones. The bill would set up a commission to study the barriers to women in these fields and would make recommendations to government, academia, and industry based on successful programs. Additionally, the bill would direct NSF to study educational opportunities available to women interested in science and issue recommendations to Congress on improving these educational opportunities.

But whether or not Morella's bill passes the 105th Congress and is signed into law, women are likely to continue moving into important leadership roles in science. "The glass needs to be much fuller," maintains Kirschstein. "It should be much fuller. But I think we are moving fairly rapidly in the right direction."

And Greenwood concludes, "Being a woman in science is a lot of fun, and it's a great career, and I hope women don't start walking away from it out of a misunderstanding about their futures."

Robert Finn, a freelance science writer based in Long Beach, Calif., can be reached online at finn@nasw.org.

In its 1995 report, the Mills College Women in Science Summit developed the following list of "key recommendations" to promote equal opportunity for women to advance in scientific leadership:
  1. Initiate new recruitment and retention efforts.
  2. Ensure comparable salaries.
  3. Promote effective mentoring systems.
  4. Improve work environments.
  5. Support career flexibility.
  6. Heighten visibility.
  7. Enhance funding.
  8. Increase accountability. More details are included in the report, "Advancing Women's Leadership in Science: An Action Plan to the Year 2000." To obtain a free copy of the report, contact the Mills Women's Leadership Institute at Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, Calif. 94613, or send E-mail to edna@mills.edu.