Editor's Page  
  February 28, 2005
Volume 83, Number 09
p. 3

  Women In Science  


This guest editorial is by Valerie J. Kuck, visiting professor at Seton Hall University's Center for Women's Studies and the department of chemistry and biochemistry. Since retiring from Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs, Murray Hill, N.J., in 2001 after a career of 34 years, she has conducted several studies on the training and hiring of chemists.


Harvard University president Lawrence Summers succeeded in being provocative with his recent comments about the possible reasons for the persistent low representation of women on university science faculties. His comments elicited strong reactions and many thoughtful responses. Subsequently, Summers apologized and has initiated actions on his campus to address the problem.

Why the fuss? The changes in American society in recent decades have been profound; many professions, like medicine and law, where women had been uncommon, now welcome women. Women hold leadership positions in corporations and in universities. American business has embraced the fact that diversity is essential to a healthy bottom line. Half of the bachelor's degrees in chemistry now go to women. But chemistry departments, particularly at research institutions, have a paucity of female faculty members.

This situation merits comment and is worthy of frank and open discussion. It is the subject of excellent and thoughtful scholarship, and some of those scholars were in Summers' audience. His remarks ignored their research: Instead, he asserted that feminists insist that men and women are identical and dismissed this with an anecdote about his two-year-old daughter. He then suggested that differences in innate mathematical ability might explain part of the problem.

Others have offered eloquent rebuttals in the popular press. American higher education looks to Harvard for leadership, so the casual words of its president carry significant weight. As argued persuasively by Virginia Valian in her book "Why So Slow?" women face an accumulation of disadvantage, with each small slight too easily dismissed as inconsequential. Repeatedly, women must tell themselves and each other, "Don't let it bother you and just get over it!" The latent suggestion that maybe women are just not good enough is often palpable. Summers simply gave it voice. His apology does not make this go away.

What are the numbers in chemistry? One representative fact is that, in 2004, 19% of the 150 assistant professors at the top 25 chemistry departments were women, a net gain of two women since 2000. This fraction is significantly lower than the percentage of female students receiving doctorates, even from those same institutions. In the mid-1990s, 28% of U.S. doctorates in chemistry went to women. Addressing this issue is not simply a matter of waiting for the numbers to catch up.

Often, I have heard professors give the excuse, "Women don't apply!" There may be some truth to this. A generation ago, a position at a top university was seen as the ultimate objective for the brightest and best of new Ph.D.s. Increasingly today, many smart and talented women and men are rejecting that choice; they admire their professors, but they don't want to follow them. In addition to a challenging research career, they also want a semblance of balance in their lives. What does this mean for the future of academic chemistry departments, and of chemistry in general? These provocative questions need to be discussed now by the leaders in academe.

From a survey of 1988–92 doctoral graduates from the top-ranked departments, my colleagues at Seton Hall University and I learned that women, as compared to men, felt less included, supported, and advised. Those factors had to have affected the career choices made by the women.

Fortunately, the picture is not uniformly bleak. Some universities are critically examining their procedures and instituting innovative solutions. The NSF ADVANCE program is playing an important role in those endeavors. Several chemistry departments have been quite successful in identifying, attracting, and retaining exceptionally talented female faculty members and are witnessing the positive impact this is having on their female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Summers has reminded us that the challenges we face are real. Reasons for the scarcity of women on science and engineering faculties are numerous, but blaming innate differences between the genders is simplistic, harmful, and not in accord with the research results of numerous scholars who have examined the situation.

Valerie J. Kuck
Seton Hall University

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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