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April 14, 2003
Volume 81, Number 15
CENEAR 81 15 pp. 46-47
ISSN 0009-2347


Symposium explores barriers women face in attaining success at the top of their field


For women chemists, the goal of achieving true gender equity with their male counterparts remains frustratingly elusive. Although real progress has been made over the past 30 years in attracting women into chemistry and chemical engineering and removing institutional barriers to their advancement, women continue to be underrepresented at the highest levels of the chemical enterprise.

Documenting that inequity, exploring the reasons behind it, and celebrating women chemists who are working to eliminate it were the aims of a symposium in New Orleans honoring Chemical & Engineering News Editor-in-Chief Madeleine Jacobs, this year's recipient of the ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, sponsored by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

Opening the symposium, ACS Women Chemists Committee Chair Carolyn Ribes said: "I can think of no one who has done more to increase the awareness of women in chemistry on a weekly basis than Madeleine Jacobs. The legitimizing influence of regular articles on gender equity in C&EN cannot be overstated."

Jacobs led off the symposium with a discussion of and data on the "pipeline issue." She and many other women chemists have trusted that as more women were educated as chemical scientists, their representation throughout the chemical enterprise--in particular in its upper ranks--would correct itself. Progress, however, has been very slow because, Jacobs said, although "the pipeline is robust, it is leaky and doesn't enter into a neutral pond."

Part of the award, Jacobs noted, is a $10,000 grant to an academic institution to strengthen its activities in meeting the objectives of the award. Jacobs has designated the chemistry department at the University of California, Los Angeles, as this year's grant recipient. UCLA's chemistry department will use the grant to create a commons lounge where women and men can meet informally as colleagues.


"We have done a better job of opening up opportunities for women in chemistry than we have of leveling the playing field."

THE OTHER SEVEN speakers at the afternoon session were Elga R. Wasserman, former special assistant on the education of women to the president of Yale University and author of "The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women in Science"; Valerie J. Kuck, adjunct professor at Seton Hall University who is retired from Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories; Ronald Breslow, a chemistry professor at Columbia University; Margaret A. Cavanaugh, a staff associate in the Office of the Director at the National Science Foundation; Jacqueline K. Barton, Arthur & Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology; Jean Spence, a senior vice president at Kraft Foods North America (who was unable to attend the meeting and whose talk was presented by Frankie K. Wood-Black, director of downstream technology business services at ConocoPhillips); and Sibrina N. Collins, assistant chemistry professor at Claflin University, Orangeburg, S.C.

In their presentations, Wasserman, Kuck, and Breslow echoed Jacobs' comments on the leakiness of the pipeline. Wasserman, for example, said: "Today, overt discrimination against women scientists has been virtually eliminated, there has been a steady increase in the number of chemistry doctorates earned by women, and the proportion of women chemists in entry-level positions closely tracks their proportion in the pool of doctoral recipients. In spite of this progress, women chemists remain scarce at the upper ranks of the profession, in academia, government, and industry. Even after controlling for age and number of years since the doctorate, women faculty in all areas of science remain less likely than their male colleagues to attain tenure or the rank of full professor."

Although there is little hard data on the causes of this disparity, Wasserman said, "There is considerable anecdotal evidence that many highly talented, trained women--as well as an increasing number of their male colleagues--are avoiding or abandoning promising scientific careers."

Why? "The single greatest challenge facing young women in science today is that of meeting the multiple, often overlapping demands and responsibilities of professional and personal lives in a very competitive scientific environment," Wasserman concluded. "Unless we reduce the dissonance between outdated institutional expectations and current social and economic realities, we will not achieve parity for women and we are likely to continue to discourage many of our brightest, most creative young scientists--women as well as men--from embarking on careers in chemistry and other sciences."

Kuck and Breslow presented data that quantified the leaky pipeline. For example, for the years 1979–99, 37.8% of total bachelor's degrees in chemistry went to women, Kuck said. Moving up the professional scale, for the same years, 25.6% of Ph.D. degrees went to women, 16.9% of postdoctoral fellowships went to women, and 9.9% of the faculty positions at the top 50 chemistry departments were held by women. Kuck's data came from the 2001 ACS "Directory of Graduate Research."

IN A SURVEY sent to men and women graduating from the 10 top-ranked chemistry departments for the years 1988 through 1992, Kuck and her Seton Hall collaborators Cecilia H. Marzabadi, assistant professor of organic chemistry; Janine P. Buckner, assistant professor of psychology; and Susan A. Nolan, assistant professor of psychology, found that men, overall, were more satisfied than women with the support they received during their studies and in looking for a job. Women, Kuck said, are pursuing tenure-track positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions at the same level as men, but they continue to be hired into such positions at a lower rate than men.

Breslow presented numbers from Columbia that reinforced the points made by Kuck. He ticked off a number of possibilities that contribute to the situation, including plain old-fashioned male chauvinism and the fact that men tend to identify with other men and, as such, find it easier to promote their careers. Breslow also pointed to a paradox among the attitudes of some men toward women: "One group of men wants female colleagues," he pointed out, "but thinks they should be just like men. Another group wants female colleagues, but thinks they should be very different from men. Combining the two produces a null set.

"We have done a better job of opening up opportunities for women in chemistry than we have of leveling the playing field," Breslow concluded.

Cavanaugh, Barton, Spence (via Wood-Black), and Collins discussed various aspects of what it takes for women chemists to achieve success in their profession. Cavanaugh, for example, in her talk titled "Prop the Door Open," discussed the importance of senior women chemists helping their junior colleagues "because familial and cultural norms often make it hard to unlock the doors to success."

"The climate in many academic institutions is still chilling and isolating," Cavanaugh said. "Most women can't find good mentors, and slow advancement in academia is frustrating."

On the other side of the door, she continued, a woman needs a set of critical skills: communications, interpersonal relations, leadership, teamwork, management, and networking. According to Cavanaugh, women often feel that they lack, in particular, leadership, management, and networking skills. They need encouragement from other successful women to do what it takes to develop these skills.

The inspirational personal success stories of Barton, Spence, and Collins provided an appropriate coda to the session. These three very different women have succeeded in three very different milieus, but they demonstrate that with hard work, dedication to their science, a sense of balance, and a strong support network of family and colleagues, women chemists achieve success equal to any male colleague. "This is not an easy job," Barton said. "It takes hard work. One has to avoid distractions because you can't do it all. The most important thing to do is to do good science." 


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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