The Why Files The Why Files --

Women in science: What are the obstacles?

Presidential pickle
young woman in yellow sweater works in science labDidja catch Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, former Wall Street bigwig, ex-sec of the treasury, pontificating about the shortage of top women scientists on January 14?

In essence, Summers said women didn't want to work as hard as men. And women weren't, well, intellectually equipped for the job, in comparison to the gender that is always tapped to be chief of the chief Ivy-League campus.

Summers said he wanted to be provocative, and he certainly provoked a long, loud discussion about the reasons why women are underrepresented in top academic science jobs. Much of the discussion has focused on the question of innate intellect, or the public politics of gender.

Nichole Broderick, a graduate student in entomology and microbiology at University of Wisconsin-Madison: "In the classroom, I don’t feel I have experienced a lot of barriers. But a subtle thing I have witnessed. We live in a culture where women in a classroom setting tend to ask fewer questions. When discussing a paper, women don’t feel hindered in terms of asking, 'Can you explain the method?' But women are a lot less likely to ask, 'Why didn’t you do it this way?' or 'Would there be a better way?' or 'I disagree.' It's very subconscious, but it happens."

Here at The Why Files, we're interested in a different question: What do sociology and psychology have to say about the obstacles confronting women in the sciences?

If he wanted to start a discussion about the role of women in science, Lawrence Summers certainly succeeded. This ad ran in The New York Times Mar. 20.
newspaper ad reads: 'Women Can't Do Science?' Following text details history of women in science

President's head-on-platter?
Beyond reasonable discussion, Summers also managed to provoke his own public denunciation from the Harvard faculty. On March 15, he received a no-confidence vote from the faculty of arts and sciences, apparently for the first time since the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony spawned Harvard in 1636.

The 218 to 185 vote "was a resounding statement the faculty lacks confidence in President Lawrence Summers and he should resign," said J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American Studies who submitted the motion. According to a March 16 AP dispatch, Matory said, "There is no noble alternative to resignation."

The ruckus began Jan. 14, when Summers told a meeting about the status of women in science that "three broad hypotheses" could explain the "very substantial disparities regarding the presence of women in high-end scientific professions":

"The high-powered job hypothesis" -- women don't like the "80-hour work-weeks" that Summers said were necessary for top-flight science.

"The different availability of aptitude at the high end" -- in other words, small differences in average math or science aptitude translate into a large disparity at the intellectual level needed to do world-class science.

"Different socialization and patterns of discrimination" -- girls and young women are guided away from science and engineering, and those who do enter the field suffer discrimination while trying to advance their careers.

As if that list was not inflammatory enough, Summers pumped the bellows by clarifying that the "time" and "intellect" arguments were the important explanations for the under-representation of women at the top of the scientific heap at Harvard and elsewhere. "Sociological" considerations played a smaller role, he said.

graph shows women with bachelor's degrees slowly rising to 2001
More women graduate from college than men. Success breeds success; the most progress occurred in fields that started with higher numbers of women. Graph: NSF/AIP

Women in his original audience were not amused. One, Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "walked out midway through Dr. Summers' remarks," wrote the New York Times, which quoted her as saying, ''When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill. Do not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile" (see "Harvard Chief Defends ..." in the bibliography).

Quickly came the backlash, with a scientific critique of Summers's remarks. "Summers was apparently unaware of the literature on implicit bias," Virginia Valian, a professor at Hunter College in New York, wrote us. "Many people think of bias as something that is deliberately intended and motivated by negative views of the group in question. Since they see themselves as intending to treat people fairly, and are unaware of unintended bias, they believe that bias does not exist."

numbers show slight rise in most academic ranks among womenEven though change is in the air, there's no question that more men get tenure at universities. Tenured professors have the highest pay and standing.

Facing a storm of criticism, the pres of Harvard, began eating crow, even though his position description doesn't ask the gentleman (never a lady!) to eat humble pie. On Feb 17, Summers wrote, "if I could turn back the clock, I would have spoken differently on matters so complex.... I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields.... My January remarks substantially understated the impact of socialization and discrimination, including implicit attitudes -- patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject. The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments, and my remarks about variability went beyond what the research has established."


In their Winter of discontent, a hundred Harvard profs wrote Summers to protest, and on March 15, the humiliating "lack of confidence" vote scourged the embattled president. Even though Summers didn't Fall, precious few Harvard professors would Spring forth to defend his comments.

Women 'n science. What are the facts?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2017, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.