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A Continuing Discussion

A great deal has been written, and continues to be, about women in science and why there is a poor representation of women in leadership roles in science. In fact, the most recent issue of The Scientist, has a nice series of articles on this topic. About a year ago, I had applied for what I thought would be a great job - the university was trying to create an increased awareness of the fact that there was a leak in the system as one moved from Ph.D to tenure-track positions; the position would involve raising this awareness. My application was accepted and I received an e-mail from the hiring committee, with some interesting questions, some of which I would like to share with you. Here is one, with the answer I supplied:


1. Women are a minority on science faculties, to varying degrees depending on field, but in any case, well below their representation in the Ph.D. pool. What is your sense of the reasons for this?

I believe the reason for poor representation of women on science faculties, when compared to the Ph.D., pool is multifactorial. The most widely discussed factors are (a) gender bias (b)"biological clocks" and (c) societal perceptions.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that outdated ideas are still prevalent when it comes to women in science, right from the elementary school level. Those girls who survive the continual conscious and subconscious onslaught of these outmoded ideas, and go on to pursue science as their chosen profession, are once again stymied in their progress by prevailing attitudes in academe.

While it can be argued that both men and women should be equally responsible when it comes to familial responsibilities, society still holds a woman as the primary caretaker and caregiver in a family. These archaic ideas are often held by members of hiring committees, and hence, a woman faculty candidate can be perceived as one who will not be as productive in the work place, as would a man. In the current atmosphere of limited availability of research funds, and one in which the performance of a department is continually measured by output in the form of publications, more often than not, search committees are not willing to "take a chance" in hiring a woman scientist. The reluctance stems from the fallacious belief that a woman scientist’s attention will likely be divided between work and family, and it is presumed that her scientific productivity will consequently suffer. One sees less of a disparity when one looks at the profile of teaching institutions that usually have a smaller emphasis on research. I believe this is because the demands of a research position are less defined on a day-to-day basis, and it is the output of the scientist that is the final determinant of success. Or, lack of it.

As in any situation, there are exceptions: there are women who have been afforded the opportunity and have been successful in being able to balance the multiple demands placed on them. However, the prevailing perception is that it is a daunting effort. Women scientists, like other women professionals, have worked hard to come up with effective ways to balance their multiple responsibilities and there is much work that needs to be done in this area. Scientists' social attitudes are not terribly different from those of society at large. Until these can be changed, such that the demands and expectations of a woman on the home front are reduced, perhaps by implementing educational and support programs at a societal and institutional level, the loss of women between the time of obtaining a Ph.D and getting a faculty position is bound to continue.

I had to keep it short, and not ramble on! I didn't get the job. I was told I was over qualified! But that is not the point of my posting this question and my answer. I am hoping that it invokes a discussion.

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