Women in science

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on the recent controversy concerning whether women are as capable as men in teaching and conducting research in the sciences.

(KUNIN) We should all thank Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, who questioned women’s scientific ability and said he simply wanted to start a debate.

And what a debate it’s become! Nature or nurture? Are women’s brains smaller, but better? Can women work 80 hours a week, or will their children be neglected? Followed up by, should anyone, man or woman, have to work 80 hours to succeed?

Out of this on going debate over whether women are equal to men, which we can trace back to Plato and Aristotle and who knows – perhaps cavemen and women debated who should decorate the walls – some useful observations are emerging. Overall, The New York Times observed last week the progress of women scientists in top universities has been uneven and fragile. But let’s not stop there.

Some universities have done better than others. They include the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington, Princeton, Stanford and MIT. Why? They have adopted programs to retain and recruit women with significant results. Three years ago, Michigan had one woman out of 55 faculty heading an engineering and science department. Today, there are eight, and the number of women on tenure tracks tripled to 41 percent.

What did they do to encourage women? It doesn’t take male or female rocket scientists to figure out. They alerted both men and women to unconscious bias, which almost everybody has because of our shared gender assumptions. They held workshops to teach women how to negotiate for salaries, research money and, most importantly, child care.

Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist, mother and president of Princeton, said that universities should do much more to “legitimize the choice” to be a scientist and a mother. The rallying cry must be, she said, “It’s day care, stupid.” Facing the reality that many faculty members have children, Princeton grants a one-year automatic tenure extension for each child, for both women and men. While women scientists have made gains at these universities, they have lost positions at Harvard, where tenure offers to women dropped from 14 out of 41 to four out of 32.

It’s not women’s ability that makes the difference between Harvard and Princeton; it is the ability of universities and colleges to adapt to the reality that many women want what men want – a happy family and a challenging career. It’s their job to enable them to succeed.

Society will be the ultimate beneficiary.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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