If you didn’t hear about Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comments regarding women in the sciences, you must be seriously media-deprived. It’s been over two months, and the issue is still making headlines in newspapers around the country.
[glasses] In case you are one of the few who hasn’t heard about the controversy, Summers’ remarks in mid-January at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Sciences and Engineering Workforce implied that women are often not willing to make necessary sacrifices in careers like physics and that a difference in “intrinsic aptitude” between the sexes might help explain the discrepancy in these fields. Summers said discrimination against women was probably third in importance after the first two reasons. Ouch.
Women are choosing careers in science, but they are overwhelmingly choosing some fields over others. According to The New York Times, less than one-fourth of bachelor’s degrees in physics go to women. At MSU, about 16 percent of physics and astronomy undergraduates are women, which is low in comparison to a department like chemistry, where women make up 48 percent of undergraduates. These departments are part of the College of Natural Science or CNS, where 55 percent of the undergraduates are women. Clearly, women are shying away from physics, but why?
The nature vs. nurture debate has long since been going on, and Summers’ comments implying a biological basis for aptitude in science have sparked an interest in the topic once again. Dean of the College of Natural Science George Leroi said the remarks in Summers’ speech have partially been taken out of context, but that everyone believes he’s wrong about differences in intrinsic aptitude. He said the reasons fewer women are found in certain areas of science are complex and it’s not just a biological issue. Leroi called gender an “accident of birth” and said that capability between men and women is absolutely the same.
Elizabeth Simmons is a professor of physics and director of the Lyman Briggs School, a residential learning community at MSU for the study of science. She thought Summers’ comments were outrageous, “especially because I am a Harvard alum,” Simmons said. About 58 percent of the students in Lyman Briggs are women. Of the faculty, 28 percent are women. “As a physicist, I’m often the only woman in a room,” Simmons said. “That’s the environment I’m used to.”
Some students, like physics sophomore Danielle Barnes, wish to see more women in faculty positions. Barnes has yet to have a female professor in the field. “I think we have a great faculty here, but I would be ecstatic to have a female (physics) professor,” Barnes said. “To have a female professor would be encouragement.”
[physics] Simmons said no one fully knows why fewer women choose physics as a career path. She believes women stray from the department for a variety of reasons, one of which being that physics has not been seen as hospitable for women. “Until recently, discrimination has discouraged women from going into areas like math and physics,” Simmons said. “It’s gotten better but it’s been slow to change.” She doesn’t think that fewer women choose physics because of the time commitment, especially considering how much time other careers such as medicine or business, also demand.
Pat Lowrie, director of the MSU Women’s Resource Center, also said it isn’t about the time commitment. “This assumes that women don’t have demanding workloads in other career choices and that family responsibilities are solely the responsibility of women,” Lowrie said. “It’s not an accurate assessment to ascribe long hours and high demands only to careers that involve laboratory responsibilities. Be assured that women in the biological sciences, the social sciences and, for that matter, those who are engaged in the administration of this university put in inordinate amounts of time and are skilled in managing their personal lives as well.”
However, Leroi said that women, as well as men, “need to understand the realities of academic life: long hours and high expectations.” Leroi said choosing a career in an area like physics is all about choices – deciding if and when to get married or have children can have a big impact on a career. “Some (women) may want to spend more time with their family,” he said.
Simmons is married with two children and is managing just fine. “We could have easily spent all our time on work. It’s hard, but it’s hard for both (parents),” she said. “Nowadays it is much more common for both to be sharing duties in the household.”
Other fields historically dominated by men have had success in attracting women, and this takes active recruitment and the removal of barriers that previously discouraged women, Lowrie said. Simmons said the frequent reference to physics as a career dominated by men may leave many women wondering, “Will I be welcomed?”
“Although there were not a lot of women in scientific careers early on, the number of women in the sciences has increased significantly in recent years,” said Melissa Meaney, a chemistry graduate student and co-chair of Women in Chemistry at MSU. “This may be because without a lot of women in the field, there may have been a lack of role models for women interested in science and also perhaps a lack of encouragement from parents, teachers and faculty.”
To attract more women to physics, Lowrie said girls and young women must find fun and enjoyment in science. “Role modeling, shadow experiences, summer camps and other targeted activities also contribute significantly to providing an awareness of the career options,” she said.
Many organizations on campus aim to provide such support for women in the sciences. The Women’s Advisory Committee to the Dean of the College of Natural Science (WAC) is a committee comprised of women from a variety of fields and positions at MSU. The group, which formed in 1998, seeks to benefit women in the college through one or two projects each academic year.
“This year, we have been developing a database of women faculty in CNS to serve as a resource for young women faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates,” said Anne Fischer, a graduate student in the department of chemistry and member of WAC.
The goal of this project is to provide a place for women to ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking a supervisor or colleague in their department. WAC is also hoping the project serves as a networking tool so women can become more familiar with women colleagues in other CNS departments.
Fischer feels she has always been treated the same as her male colleagues, but comments like Summers’ show that gender discrimination still exists. “It is these attitudes that we must confront to make a significant impact in terms of gender equality in the sciences,” Fischer said.
Simmons said in the past she experienced situations in which women were seen as not ready for the responsibility of the field. “Coming to MSU, I haven’t sensed that at all,” said Simmons, who joined the faculty a year and a half ago.
“We’re making sure that people aren’t discriminated against for any reason,” Leroi said. “There is a continuum of talent for both men and women.” Both sexes need to be judged based on whether or not they meet the standards set by CNS. He said it is priority to ensure, when interviewing for faculty positions, the search committees invite a diverse group of applicants. “It is based on credentials; it is gender-neutral in terms of who will be a better candidate,” Leroi said.
Simmons said that CNS is trying to pay attention so that there are good positive role models for female students. “MSU is paying attention to this topic, even when budgets are tight,” she said. “You have to pay attention every year in order to make progress.”
Perhaps MSU is making efforts to narrow the gender gap on campus, especially with a female president and five female deans. In the 21st century, women continue to prove they are every bit as capable as men and that families aren’t always the priority. But comments like Summers’ serve as a reminder that although strides have been made at our university, the world we live in has a long way to go.
For a list of the MSU organizations for women in science, visit http://www.ns.msu.edu/women/organizations.htm

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