Bill Menke's BLOG Page: Women Scientists in Academia


Inge Lehmann,
discoverer of the earth
s inner core

I am among the most senior of a generation of professors to be educated after women had become a numerically-significant presence in science departments.  Women scientists were fewer than men, yet not so few that they had no impact on us students. My education was positively influenced in many ways. My undergraduate mentor was a woman geophysicist. I learned programming from a woman computer scientist. And I learned about the then-new theory of plate tectonics from a woman professor who had just made exciting discoveries in that area. The percentage of women seemed to me to be on the up-swing: About a fifth of my graduate classmates were women Ph.D. students.

I am surprised then that, twenty-five years later, so little has changed.  Women, though still numerically-significant presence on science faculties, are still very much in the minority.  This Child of the Sixties, steeped in the egalitarianism of that idealistic, if rather idiosyncratic, era asks, What happened?  Why hasnt equality prevailed?

Yet I wouldnt want to give the impression that I am not part of the problem.  As a senior professor, I have participated in C even led C many searches for new faculty. To date, precisely one of these has led to the hiring of a woman professor.

My experiences havent led me to any definitive answers. One tendency worries me, though. We scientists tend to apply the same analysis strategies to employment dossiers as we do to objective scientific data.  We seek to identify the best in the field using a process that is analogous to finding the highest mountain. So we pour over dossiers, counting awards, first-authorships and superlative evaluations by prestigious colleagues at other universities.  The best women often do well by this metric, but rarely quite as well as the best men. Hence our tendency is to hire the men. But each of these factors, in its own way, is just the opinion of some other person. Arent we just naively elevating opinions to the status of fact?

Sure, when we faculty make a hiring decision, we should listen to the opinions of others.  But we shouldnt give those opinions an authority that overrides our own.  Its not that we are wiser, or less prejudiced.  Its just that the responsibility is ours.