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Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Sciences - A Sociologist's View

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: Joyce Tang, Department of Sociology, Queens College of the City University of New York

The theme of this paper is the promotion of women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in science from a sociological perspective. The materials are drawn from my recent book on scientific pioneers and other studies of scientists and engineers.

The Context: Then and Now
Imagine living in a society where some are not allowed to attend school (or perform scientific research) because of gender or race. Today, society is providing women and minorities with the opportunity to acquire advanced degrees and positions in scientific fields. How can we promote the advancement of women and minorities in academia and industrial research?

Historically, women and minorities were excluded from making any contribution to science. More recently, however, owing in part to social movements and political changes, women and minorities enjoy equal opportunities to obtain a scientific education and subsequent employment. Some decide to study science because of an innate curiosity and fascination about natural phenomena.

However, equality in opportunities does not mean equality in outcomes. Accessibility does not always guarantee academic and career success in science. The challenge that we face today is best captured in a presentation by the President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, entitled “Making Excellence Inclusive” at this national symposium.

The Puzzle
Why aren’t there more female and minority scientists?

The Answers
The short answer to this question is that fewer women and minorities receive scientific training, and proportionally, greater numbers of women and minorities do not remain in scientific professions. But the “leaky science pipeline” thesis (or the “revolving door” phenomenon) is not an adequate explanation for the underrepresentation of women and minorities in science. Despite many legislative changes, women and minorities need to overcome many subtle and no-so-subtle obstacles to enter, remain, and succeed in science. These barriers are cultural, structural, as well as institutional.

The extensive answer can be stated by three postulations, each with its own limitations:

  1. The biological explanation emphasizes women and minorities’ lack of abilities to pursue intellectual tasks.
  2. According to the individual choice explanation, women and minorities have a general preference for non-science careers.
  3. The structural explanation argues that institutional obstacles are responsible for the virtual absence of women and minorities in science.

None of these explanations encourages young women and minorities aspiring to scientific careers. In fact, they can be discouraging to the large numbers of female and minority students who have already enrolled in science and math courses.

The Solutions
The good news is that the barriers for women and minorities to participate in science are not insurmountable. I have conducted a sociological study of extraordinary women from different scientific fields, contexts, and countries. Results of an analysis of the life, work and career histories of these “female scientific pioneers” exemplify that successful scientists can be nurtured, and not determined at birth.

A career in science is a product of individual attributes, structural opportunities, and institutional support. Career advancement is a continuous, dynamic process of choice, design, and adaptation. The right attitude, support, and environment can provide women and minorities with success in science, both academically and occupationally.

Subsequently, what can we learn from female scientific pioneers to assist women and minorities advance in science?

Develop creative thinking styles
Think outside of the box. Scientific discoveries are often a result of extreme creativity when approaching an existing or new problem. Fortunately, creative thinking styles are primarily the product of learning and practice. With sufficient training, patience, and effort, we can produce plenty of male and female Einsteins.

Encourage diversity in problem selection and problem solution
There is no single approach to scientific research (theoretical/experimental, pure/applied, collaboration/competition) or discoveries (by chance or through imagination). A combination of many techniques and strategies can lead to scientific advances. Aspiring student scientists must be persistent and tireless in searching for the right answers to a particular problem.

Nurture personal qualities
Female scientific pioneers study science simply for the pleasure of uncovering the mysteries of the universe (“solving the puzzle”). They are not motivated by external rewards such as financial gains (“searching for the gold”) or recognition (“seeking the ribbon”). They also set themselves apart from others in terms of ability, effort, and perseverance.

Allow opportunities for luck
Scientific discoveries are often the product of chance and good fortune. The opportunities to participate in scientific endeavors must become available and accessible to women to allow them to be present in the right place at the right time.

Benefit from change

Cultural changes: Cultural changes have facilitated the participation of women in science. Some of the clear signs of declining social resistance are:

  1. The first women’s movement in Europe and North America provided women with advanced educational opportunities.
  2. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in federally assisted education programs. As a result, women receive greater access to Ph.D. programs to perform serious scientific research.
  3. The establishment of women’s colleges has also significantly increased the participation of women in higher education and subsequently in science.

Economic changes: Successful female scientists receive financial support for training and research at different states of their education and careers. Because of shortages of scientists, university teachers, and government workers during the Second World War, educated women had an opportunity to gain entry into the scientific professions.

Political changes:

  1. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 prohibits discrimination in education and employment based on sex.
  2. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 further loosens social constraints on women’s participation in the labor force.

Take advantage of support from family, school/institutes, and science

Success in science is often determined by the environment. Novice scientists need to be nurtured by extraordinary people who serve as appropriate career role models. Scientists-in-training must also work hard and take advantage of whatever assistance is provided by family, institutions, and society at large.

Family: Most female scientific pioneers come from middle-class, academic, or professional backgrounds. They grew up with a family tradition of emphasis on education. A male or female figure in the family was instrumental in nurturing their interest in science. Many of these women were not brought up in accordance with the gender role expectations at the time.

Schools/Institutes: Female scientific pioneers find employment (paid or unpaid) in the private or public sector. As a result, these women surround themselves with people who are committed to science and are willing to work with them to achieve their goals. Institutional backing provides women support and resources and, more importantly, the opportunity to be part of the “invisible college” (“old-boys” networks) or to create their own networks.

Scientific Establishment: Successful female scientists manage to use the institution of science to their advantage. They are able to form and maintain strong ties with influential male scientists. They establish a connection to power brokers, e.g. spouses, mentors, or sponsors, who provide them with a plethora of information, resources, and opportunities. Why would these powerful male scientists assist their female colleagues? According to Margaret Rossiter (1995), these women gain support and sympathy from men because i) they are so hard working and dedicated to their work, and ii)their work has broken new ground. These male scientists or leaders in science are secure and do not feel threatened by the success of women.

Achieving academic and career successes in science presents a challenge to all of us, especially to women and minorities. The culture and norms of society in general and of science in particular have affected men, women, whites, and minorities differently, primarily because of socialization and the structure of the scientific profession. Some women and minorities have become successful because they have overcome numerous obstacles to make significant contributions to the field and the profession. They know how to navigate within the white, male domain. They work diligently to develop their networks. They take bold and strategic actions to become part of the “old-boys” club.

Actions by educators, social scientists, and policymakers
Educators need to experiment with new ways of teaching in and outside the classroom to help produce creative thinkers and/or successful scientists. Social scientists should pay greater attention to the elements of an individual’s life (such as family upbringing and parental involvement in education) to help improve the chance for successful outcomes. Policymakers may be able to manipulate the family and academic environments in fostering the development of certain characteristics among students.

All this takes commitment and resources from the nation’s leaders. To make sure the national leadership would continuously pay attention to this important issue, we need forums like this to engage in discussions and debates and make recommendations for effective actions.


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