Foundations Addressing Gender Gap In Science

Grade-school girls ask fewer questions of their science teachers than their boy classmates do. Young women in high school tend to favor social acceptability over scientific proficiency-even though they have the ability for both. Undergraduate women question whether they can balance a career in science with a family. Female graduate students in the hard sciences consider themselves fortunate if they have one woman in their department to serve as a role model or mentor. And postgraduate women sci

Nov 24, 1997
Paul Smaglik

Grade-school girls ask fewer questions of their science teachers than their boy classmates do. Young women in high school tend to favor social acceptability over scientific proficiency-even though they have the ability for both. Undergraduate women question whether they can balance a career in science with a family. Female graduate students in the hard sciences consider themselves fortunate if they have one woman in their department to serve as a role model or mentor. And postgraduate women scientists wonder if they will ever make department chairperson or dean, since so few women before them have achieved those positions.

TIME TO EXCEL: A Clare Boothe Luce professorship provided Harvey Mudd College's Shenda Baker with money for child care.
Foundations have begun to attack these issues head-on. Some philanthropists provide female scientist role models for grade-school children. Some foundations back mentoring for female undergraduate and graduate school scientists. Others fund female professorships and department chairmanships for postgraduate women scientists. Still, foundation heads agree that the nature of their endowments keeps their approaches small and targeted, while the problem remains vast and multifaceted. And only a handful of large foundations provide opportunities specifically for women scientists.

The shortage of women scientists starts with cues girls receive that say science may not be for them, notes Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. Singer supervises a program designed to interest girls in science and demonstrate that women can succeed in the field. The program, First Light, provides weekend science education activities for disadvantaged children from Washington, D.C.'s public schools.

Several female scientists lead the First Light programs, which are balanced to appeal to both boys and girls. Despite those adaptations, more girls than boys drop out. "It hasn't been easy to keep girls in the program," Singer says. "It's tough and it's troubling." Lack of parental encouragement plays a key role in keeping women interested in science, she adds. More boys than girls probably receive encouragement to develop curiosity in science, and without that encouragement, girls lose interest.

ROLE MODEL: First Light case director Ines Cifuentes provides an example of a female with a career in science for children.
Providing an example of a female with a career in science serves as First Light case director Ines Cifuentes's most valuable contribution to the program. "It does seem to matter who they see doing science," she asserts.

Still, the children's initial behavior sometimes reflects gender stereotypes. Girls in coed groups tend to be less eager to ask questions, although one group of mostly female students Cifuentes has worked with were quite vocal. Another group of girls initially acted squeamish about handling earthworms, but "in about five minutes they were touching them and making habitats," she reports. Although the activities aim to make children better thinkers, Cifuentes says the program may ultimately help them overcome barriers of race, class, and gender: "My guess is some will become scientists."

Cifuentes, a Latino woman who was trained as a seismologist, faced some roadblocks probably familiar to many female scientists before coming to the Carnegie Institution. She had few mentors or role models. Her adviser was less than cooperative. Finding funding proved a daunting challenge. And she felt she was forced to choose between having children and having a scientific career. While she wants to encourage both minority boys and girls about careers in science, Cifuentes also feels obligated to tell them that getting there won't be easy. "We need to break the stereotype. But kids need to know the history. And we still have a long way to go."

Grade-school girls aren't the only ones who need role models, maintains Sara Lee Schupf, chairwoman of the Weizmann Women and Science Award, sponsored by the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, of which she is a trustee. Women in science at all levels need them, she states. To create more visible role models, she has funded placement of new graduates in the dorms and classrooms of a private girl's prep school, endowed a chair for a female scientist, and helped institute an award recognizing outstanding women scientists (See Commentary, page 9). These honors bring more visibility to women scientists, says Schupf, noting that the only women scientist's name that most Americans can provide, when pressed, is Marie Curie. "That's pretty sad."

Schupf challenges the women scientists she recognizes to reach out into the community more, perhaps occasionally helping at their own children's school and giving talks for different education levels. She believes that hearing women express how fun and exciting science is will attract more females to the field.

That approach has been effective at Emma Willard School for Girls in Troy, N.Y., says Jack Easterling, academic dean. Schupf provides funding for women who have recently completed undergraduate science degrees to live in the dorms with the students and assist with teaching, coaching, and counseling. The visible enthusiasm of these interns rubs off on the high school students. "It's helpful to them to see someone young who is taking science seriously," Easterling says. The interns also gain valuable teaching experience that could translate into better graduate school positions.

EARLY EXPOSURE: Carnegie Institution's Maxine Singer supervises the First Light program designed to interest girls in science.
Once women get to graduate school, the disproportionately low number of female faculty can be discouraging-especially in the hard sciences, says Jaleh Daie, president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington, D.C. "In some fields, like physics, chemistry, and engineering, less than 20 percent of workers are women." Those numbers plunge precipitously at the higher levels of academia. Few women serve as deans or department chairpersons-even in fields like biology, in which the numbers of women scientists nearly equal men.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York City has targeted its efforts to improving the climate for female graduate and undergraduate students, explains Ted R. Greenwood, the foundation's program officer. Mentoring programs can change that feeling of isolation for women, so the foundation helped AWIS establish a national mentoring network and gave the organization a grant in 1990 to develop model mentor programs. AWIS has since provided mentors to female scientists across the United States. "It's important to set up formal mentoring programs for women because it's less likely to happen informally," Greenwood explains.

The university environment can be improved for women through means other than mentoring, he adds. The foundation has sponsored major workshops on sexism for students and faculty at eight campuses. Sexism, while often unintentional, sends out the message: "This is not a discipline for women." Existing imbalances in departments like physics, chemistry, and engineering silently reinforce that message.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
630 Fifth Ave., Suite 2550
New York, N.Y. 10111-0242
(212) 649-1649
Fax: (212) 757-5117

Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.
1530 P St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 387-6400
Fax: (202) 387-8092

Emma Willard School
285 Pawling Ave.
Troy, N.Y. 12180
(518) 274-3478

Henry Luce Foundation Inc.
111 W. 50th St., Suite 4601
New York, N.Y. 10020
(212) 489-7700
Fax: (212) 591-9541
Weizmann Institute of Science
76100 Rehovot
(972) 8-934-2111
Fax: (972) 8-946-6966

GENDER BALANCE: Henry Luce Foundation Inc.'s Evelyn Benjamin directs funding to women in chemistry, physics and engineering.
The Henry Luce Foundation Inc. of New York City was founded specifically to bring gender balance to the hard sciences, notes Evelyn Benjamin, director of the foundation's Clare Boothe Luce Program. Before Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time magazine founder and media baron Henry Luce, died in 1987, she established a foundation dedicated to assisting female scientists by providing scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students and funding professorships in those fields.

About 100 schools have since benefited from the program, which has funded several hundred scholars and fellows. The hope is that women professors sponsored by the Luce foundation eventually will become department deans and chairpersons. So far, that strategy appears to be on track. "Almost everyone has gotten tenure," Benjamin says of the professorships for women funded since 1987. Many of the women who have received Luce professorships distinguish themselves early in their careers.

Shenda M. Baker, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., says the foundation allowed her to be both a mother and a scientist. In addition to paying her salary and benefits for five years, the foundation provides money for travel, child care, and publication expenses. "That ultimately meant I could do my job. Just missing a week because your kid is sick-you can't do that when you are teaching."

By helping Baker pay for a nanny to take care of her two children, the foundation allowed the scientist to devote more time to teaching and research. "It removes a couple levels of things you have to worry about," she says of the funding. "You're always going to sacrifice something. The only thing I've sacrificed is sleep." She credits the foundation with helping her win a National Science Foundation CAREER award, a Department of Energy Young Scientist and Engineer Award, and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers last year.

Baker also enjoys serving as a role model and mentor to female students. She helps choose who will receive the $50,000 a year in scholarships the foundation provides the school. Many students keep in touch after they have graduated. One female student E-mailed her after she entered graduate school and asked the professor whether she could be both a scientist and a mother. Baker pointed to her own track record and encouraged the student. "I didn't have any role models who did both," she notes.

Many women who have received professorships-whether through foundations or other routes-may eventually break through the glass ceiling and become deans or chairs. However, it may be too early to tell, Baker adds. "The pool's getting bigger, but the pool hasn't been around long enough."

VISIBLE CHAIR: Skidmore College's Mary Crone plans to use her appointment to encourage more women to consider science as a career.
Philanthropy also helped Mary M. Crone, Lubin Family Chair for a Woman Scientist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Crone, who is the first to fill the position endowed by Schupf this September, wants to use her visibility to encourage more women scientists. The astrophysicist plans to use her research to reach more people. By speaking at schools and in the community, she will, by example, be encouraging girls to consider science "It's a reason for it to occur to them that science might be something that they might do."

While Crone says she's thrilled with her appointment, she feels slightly uncomfortable with how positions designed specifically for women could appear. She hopes people don't misinterpret such positions as gender-based affirmative action-that women can't reach such positions on their own. Still, she acknowledges their necessity to elevate more women scientists into positions of higher visibility.

While foundations are helping women like Crone achieve higher positions, even the best-designed program has its limits. For example, the Sloan Foundation's 1998 pilot program to give one year of leave for men or women to take care of children or ailing parents will benefit 15 to 20 scientists. But many more needing similar assistance won't have such programs available to them, because the grants will be limited to a handful of universities specified by the foundation. For the program to have an impact beyond the scientists it funds, it would have to inspire similar programs and perhaps even alter university hiring policies nationwide. "All we can do is give money," Greenwood explains. "We can't change policy."

Benjamin says foundations' individual missions target specific problems in a limited number of institutions. "Our program is very precise. We don't go into high schools and elementary schools." Schupf, too, knows she can't endow a science chair at every single university in the United States. By endowing one chair, by sponsoring one award, she can promote the idea, but must wait for it to take hold. "It's a matter of education," she states.

And persistence, adds Daie. Foundations can begin to address the problem. But society still has a long way to go before the genders achieve equal representation at all levels of science. "Nothing happens overnight-especially if it is a cultural issue, a social issue. We're not there yet."