Women and Science: Opportunity in a Changing Landscape


An "American Girl" scientist doll; a "Kate Sal, the Technology Gal" children's television show hostess; alternatives to the tenure system in higher education; and data for funders on the success of women-directed ventures in industry.

 These were some of the strategies to keep girls and women engaged in the physical and computer sciences suggested during a national symposium held October 26-27 at Bryn Mawr: Women and Science: Opportunity in a Changing Landscape.

 Without female role models and mentors, girls in elementary, middle and high school do not easily envision themselves as successful mathematicians, physicists or computer engineers. By the time they reach college-Bryn Mawr is an exception-few women major in these fields, and the percentages are even smaller in science-related careers. Yet their numbers and their perspectives are vital to the nation's security and economic well-being as it faces a shortage of science, engineering and technology (SET) workers.

This gender imbalance has been discussed and measured for at least 20 years, but studies issued in 2000-2001 suggest that it is as much the result of negative perceptions of scientists and their values as of bias against women themselves. Research with children using the Draw-a Scientist Test (DAST) shows that stereotypical images of scientists as white males who are socially inept, eccentric or diabolical madmen emerge by the second grade and persist among undergraduate and graduate students. In verbal responses to questionnaires, children describe scientists as selfish, unimaginative and authoritarian, particularly physicists and engineers.

 The advertising and entertainment industries have perpetuated such stereotypes, but efforts are underway to transform them. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE), for example, has launched a print and radio campaign to advertise its awards program for engineering achievements and to show a positive and more diverse public face. Keynote speaker at Bryn Mawr's symposium, NAE president Dr. William A. Wulf, said he even pitched an "LA Engineer" television drama to Hollywood through an Emmy-award winning director, but was told "no, because it wouldn't make money." Wulf (who did poke fun at similar shows that glamorize law) said he will now take its eventual appearance as a "metric" that the general population has a more correct image.

Action items
Organized by Bryn Mawr and its Center for Science in Society, the symposium brought together leaders in education, industry and government, many of them alumnae, to address the advancement of women in SET. President of the College Nancy J. Vickers told participants, "You know better than I that there is no single solution to these problems." She urged them to use the event's two days of workshops "to enrich our understanding of the continuous and interrelated world of the classroom and the workplace, and explore some possible ways we might proceed individually, institutionally and collectively to improve the situation."

Workshop topics included new learning technologies and pedagogical strategies, supporting women faculty, effective networking, risk-taking and leadership, and women in New Economy careers. The proceedings of the entire symposium may be read online this winter. Here we highlight several areas of discussion and recommendations.
Tech Grrls

'Messing around'
Instead of "pink software"like Barbie Fashion Designer, which reinforces gender stereotypes and offers no opportunity to tinker with patterns, market more programs for graphic design and problem solving. More video games that feature simulation, strategy and interaction would appeal to girls and boys alike.

 "There is a propensity for boys to mess around in science and a propensity for young women to plan towards an objective," reported the workshop on new learning technologies. "We want to support both learning styles. Boys who tinker a lot often then plan things out towards an objective when they mature because it tends to be required by jobs and society, whereas women get prepared for that in their early years and don't do a lot of the tinkering early on that boys do."

A cross-disciplinary curriculum is a key both to drawing young women into science and technical careers and to improving science education and literacy throughout the nation. Public school teachers need better training in science, especially in innovative uses of computing for all subject areas. University and college faculty could help K-12 teachers find out about enrichment programs and make resources available to them for proposal writing.

 A report by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, stresses that gender equity cannot be measured by how many girls send e-mail, surf the Web, or make PowerPoint presentations. The standard for equity should include the ability to interpret the information that technology makes available and imagine innovative uses for it across a range of subjects and careers. (For AAUW research publications, including Tech Savvy, see: http://www.aauw.org/2000/research.html and http://www.aauw.org/2000/techsavvy.html)

The conference opened with a panel discussion, "Women in Science: Where are We Now," among representatives of pre-university education, university teaching and research, "traditional" industry, "new economy" industry and government science research.

Panelist Anne M. Thompson, Ph.D. '78 (chemistry), a geoscientist at NASA Goddard Space Center, pointed out that higher education "is still very disciplinary in its divisions. We might talk more how the academy can prepare us for jobs in the real world that bring to bear our most rigorous scientific training but with the need to be flexible and interdisciplinary in our thinking. I'm actually more excited in the middle of my career about what I do than I was when I left graduate school and went on postdoc. It's because we keep addressing new problems. The ozone hole, which was the buzzword of 10 years ago, is now mostly replaced by ozone-smog concerns, which are the sort that I study."
Science literacy

Toys R Baggage
Symposium participants expressed enormous frustration with the mass media for the messages they send girls about their roles in life. "All you have to do is walk into Toys 'R' Us to see the baggage young women are carrying around," said panelist Jane Butler Kahle, an international scholar in gender difference in science education.

In her report from the workshop on pedagogical strategies, co-moderator Suzanne E. Franks noted that "Young women and girls have some mental image of what it might be like to be a doctor or lawyer, whether or not their perception is accurate, but they either have no perception of careers in science and engineering or their perceptions are really inaccurate in negative ways." It is also important to recognize that a surprising number of girls still are not taught to aspire to careers said Franks, who is director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program at Kansas State University.

 An "If I had a magic wand" action item from this workshop was to bring "a steady stream of real-life models" from the community who do science-related work into every elementary and secondary school classroom.

 A 16-month-long study by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development (CAWMSET) encourages advocacy groups to join partnerships already underway with the advertising and entertainment industries, such as NAE's, to provide more aspirational messages for girls and women.

Balancing the Equation: Where Women and Girls Are in Science, Engineering and Technology, a report by the National Council for Research on Women (written by Mary Thom '66), also provides a blueprint of programs, practices, and recommendations to attract and retain women and girls in SET. "Changes need to reach deeply into the culture to permanently alter the institutions where science is taught and practiced," it notes.

Zigging and zagging
The video game Tetris, introduced in the early 1990s, is one of the best-sellers of all time among girls and women. Groups of four blocks, each arranged in varying patterns like dominos, drop from the top of the screen. The player is able to rotate each block or move it left or right as it falls in order to patch together horizontal lines at the bottom of the screen. (See graphic at head of article.)

Playing Tetris (although backward moves cannot be made) evokes the way many women compose their lives, moving step by step and adapting to circumstances. Symposium panelists and alumnae debated to what extent this special quality is an advantage for women or reflects their socialization not to set long-term career goals.

 "We need to encourage girls and young women to think in terms of where they want to be and how to get there-then they can zig and zag as many of us will," said Jane Butler Kahle, Condit Professor of Science Education at Miami University and senior adviser, directorate of Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation.

Play a simple Tetris game online.
Play a more complicated Tetris game online.
See analysis and strategies for Tetris.

 "It's fine to move sideways and backwards as long as these are conscious decisions to learn new skills," said symposium panelist Priscilla Perkins Grew '62, the first woman to head the California Department of Conservation, to chair that state's Mining and Geology Board, to direct the Minnesota Geological Survey, and to serve as Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where she is Professor of Geosciences.

 "If you're trying to decide about a job change, think in terms of the job you'd like after that and the skills you'd gain," Grew said. "I left a tenure track position in a geologic specialty to work basically as a secretary in administration of a large multidisciplinary project that was doing a regional environmental assessment in the Colorado River Basin. It was the best thing I ever did because I was really interested in interdisciplinary work and got my first exposure working with anthropologists (who were working with the Navajo Nation on factors affecting the population). I took a year's leave of absence because I didn't want to burn bridges but people told me I was totally crazy. I didn't have any five-year plan, and it wasn't a smooth monotonic progression, but I had reasons."

 Bryn Mawr alumnae speaking at a follow-up science career panel for students on November 8 reiterated: "Follow your passion. Be open to serendipitous opportunities. Don't feel it's the end of the world if you've made one wrong decision." Liberal arts background key

"Seeing choices or events as opportunities rather than risks helps you broaden your ability to face obstacles and advance in your career as well as grow personally," said Elizabeth McCormack, Associate Professor of Physics on the Rosalyn R. Schwartz Lectureship at Bryn Mawr and co-moderator of the symposium workshop on risk-taking and leadership.

 This workshop and others emphasized the need for women to surround themselves with friends and family who support them and who are flexible. "Practice contingency planning, imagining the worst thing that could happen as the result of a decision," McCormack reported. "Find a mentor or peer and rehearse scenarios, thinking of ways to minimize the risk of certain decisions."

 "Women often grow up and succeed by making decisions based on a lot of information," she said. They tend to fear not being liked, have a general sense of empathy for all involved, and seek consensus. These are positive traits but can be barriers to making quick decisions or deciding to take risks.

 An action item recommended several times during the symposium was an online database of life stories of women in SET that tell about their failures as well as successes, how they overcame obstacles, and what their days are really like.

 Co-moderator of the workshop on women in the New Economy, Lori Perine '80, CEO of Interpretech, LLC, noted: "Women fail at one thing and think it's a disaster and never try again whereas some of our male colleagues will start a company. It will fail. They start a second company. It will fail. They'll start a third company. It will fail. About the seventh or eighth time they actually get something that starts to thrive, and that's just the way it happens. We fail once, figure that's it-we just don't know how to do it-and close down shop and go home."

Fear of loneliness
Priscilla Grew said that women's fear of loneliness and isolation can be another obstacle to pursuing science-related careers. "But science today is an extremely social activity, whether you are working on research teams or managing academic departments," she said.

Women often limit the geographical areas of their job searches because of a domestic partner who can't or doesn't want to move, "the two body problem." Starting a family during the postgraduate years is also extremely difficult. There is not enough support in the academy for part-timers, and longer postdoctoral appointments are not always advantageous.

 The workshop on supporting women S&T faculty recommended making the system more flexible, with alternatives such as fixed contracts to tenure, which coincides with child bearing years, and multiple entry, reentry and exit career points.

 The workshop on new learning technologies also discussed distance education "as a particular opportunity for women to further their education for science careers at home because they tend to have other social obligations such as taking care of children and parents." Co-moderator Paul Grobstein, Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Science in Society, pointed out, however, that the "apprentice mode of actually working alongside another person offers the highest bandwidth of interactive exchange-visual, auditory, tactile, etc. input. The classroom experience offers a lower bandwidth, and distance learning compresses maximum exchange across a very narrow pipeline-but it does 'beat nothing'."

Reshaping the game
Maxine L. Savitz '58, director of Technology Partnerships, Honeywell Corporation, and a member of the NAE and National Science Board, convened workshops on the workplace to review issues and action items. (Savitz, a chemistry major and energy conservation expert, also spoke at a November 16 colloquium at the College on energy efficiency. See The College News section.)

 "There are no women CEOs of the 42 major chemical companies," Savitz said. "Twelve percent of senior managers in SET industry are women, but at that level only 7 percent have line jobs, meaning they run for-profit, bottom lines. If you are interested in working for industry, having responsibility for a P&L is key."

 The agenda of the workshop on the New Economy was to identify barriers, unacknowledged and acknowledged, to the success of women in this business environment. The "New Economy" has been created by increased international trade and investment and by information technology-not just the use of fax machines, cellular phones, personal computers, and the Internet, but the digitization of information that has itself created new companies and industries.

"Many women have entered this new economy because you can do it home based or in a virtual office," said Lori Perine '80, who co-moderated the workshop with Pari Sabety '79, director of the Technology Policy Group at the Ohio Supercomputing Center. Becoming a free agent is a way to get over the barrier of the "two-body problem"; you can figure out which partner needs to be attached to an institution. One of the greatest barriers women in these businesses face, however, is access to capital-"getting the money"-because women entrepreneurs are perceived as having a higher risk.

 "This is belied by anecdotal evidence," Perine said, "but it would be good to track the actual risk profiles of women-directed ventures and have that data as evidence in presentations to funders. Most venture funds and capital networks, in the very broad sense, operate on the old boy model-who you know from school days and your business connections. Women seeking money need to make these personal and professional connections through networking and introductions.

"Women need to know the rules of the game, how to gauge which battles to fight; the culture of business, how to negotiate and ask for what you want in the language that is understood by those who fund, who help you market and sell your ideas.

 "We noted that there were age and generational differences in how effectively women were able to leverage certain opportunities in the new economy as entrepreneurs, as business owners, and we also noted that women were encountering a diversity of value sets that may differ from their own in terms of what is achievable and what constitutes success," Perine said.

 Workshop participants called for research on the sociological aspects of business-for example, the effectiveness of beginning business meetings with sports talk, which is used as a transactional commonality-information that would help women understand how better to use their attributes to leverage opportunities available within the game "even as we're learning the rules and potentially reshaping them," Perine said.

 "One of the things we noted throughout our conversation was that some of the barriers we were coming up with weren't necessarily specific to women but seemed to be part of a dominant culture versus a suboordinate one, and we wondered if some of the strategies we were coming up with might be applicable to other underrepresented groups as well," she said.

The rules of the game are shifting generationally, participants noted; the dominant culture has been determined by older males and has a certain pecking order. Whitney Quesenbery '76, senior vice president for design at Cognetics Corporation, applied sports metaphors to business models and structures, making a corollary to an essay by John Perry Barlow, Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Barlow developed in his essay, "Death from above," the observation that the men at the top of the American CEO Corps had piloted bombers during World War II. An English major who made a career leap from theater to interface design, Quesenbery pointed out that while hers was a football generation, her nephew's is a soccer generation. "Football is a command and control game," she said. "What you hear soccer parents yelling is 'Watch the pattern,' 'Where are you in relationship to people?' 'Pass the ball correctly.' In business we've gone from hierarchies to team structures and bigger teams; I see those in parallel." She and Sabety agreed that this shift may take 20-30 years. "My daughter will surpass me in many, many respects," Sabety noted. "She's already much better at much of this than I ever was."

 Perine also reported: "The perpetual issue of double standards for behavior in the workplace came up, and we wanted to make a tremendous recommendation-'Stop whining and deal with it,' was one comment-but using a sports metaphor again, kind of punted on this one. "We decided that there are individual coping strategies, but it may come down to personal choices and compromises that we have to make depending on where we are in our careers, and a balance between our comfort levels and being agents for change in different situations."

 Throughout the symposium, the distinction was made between wanting to change norms versus trying to work with them, and whether this is largely generational. Elizabeth McCormack cited the Americans with Disabilities Act as an example of tension generating a situation for reform: "Are you changing the woman or the institution?" As the workshop on supporting women S&T faculty emphasized, "It is important to involve men. Formulate a plan to speak to the unconverted, men, women, transgendered. Women talking to women is a wonderful, liberating experience, but it is not going to have an effect that goes beyond certain limits."

The proceedings of the symposium, including reports from each of the workshops, may be read online this winter. Check under News and Events on the College's home page. For more information, please contact symposium coordinator Ruth Lindeborg '80.

Read an article by Norwegian physicist Svein Sjoberg, “The disenchantment with science.” Sjoberg argues that “S&T professionals and academics need to accept that the problem is their own problem, and that they need to engage in the search for solutions.” http://www.apollon.uio.no/2000_english/articles/disenchantment.shtml

Tech Grrls
Science literacy
Liberal arts background key

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