Women in Science: The Heart of the Matter

Douglas Curran-Everett is a clinical assistant professor in two departments at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. In his essay, Curran-Everett explores issues that women and men must confront if all talented women can succeed in science.

Scientists are men.

--Anonymous boy, second grade (1995)

I am sick to death of the gender stuff. Let's just drop the gender stuff. It's not necessary, and it just creates more of a problem.

--Rose, doctoral student (2000)

At the heart of the matter of women in science lies a simple paradox: harassment, discrimination, and disparate success persist, but most people--even most women--don't want to talk about it. Should we be surprised that these problems still exist? Not really. Are these persistent problems blatant like they were during the era of bra-burning feminists and male chauvinist pigs? No. Today, these problems are subtle and insidious. Is the condition of women in science better than it used to be? Absolutely. Should we be satisfied with the current condition of women in science? Absolutely not.

At a time when columnists and commentators pontificate about the investigative tools used by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and about the role of rape in human evolution, is it any wonder that the culture of science remains a difficult place for women? No, because as much as we might loathe to admit it, the culture of science mirrors the rest of society. But wait, you might ask, how can that be? There are two reasons: It is ordinary people with ordinary biases and failings that populate the culture of science, and the process of creating substantive change within any institution or culture is a long, arduous one.

In this essay, I wonder about the biases and failings that underlie the disparate success of women in science, and I offer strategies to circumvent them.

I do not know that I can articulate fully why I am writing this essay. More than one woman has told me that by writing this, I am stepping onto a fragile pedestal. Maybe precipice is more like it. I do know that I rarely shy from giving public voice to broader issues discussed only in private. That these private discussions happen means that the issues are anything but resolved. So it is with the matter of women in science.

The Potential and the Reality

It will come as no surprise that the struggles of women in science have nothing to do with interest or ability. As one example, this is what Lauren wrote after she participated in a physiology activity I took to her 5th-grade classroom: "I really liked learning about lungs. As soon as I got home that night, I started doing really fun experiments.'' When I judged at the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair this past April, 279 talented kids participated; 54% of these talented kids were girls.

But over time, what happens as these girls pursue up the proverbial ladder their passion for science? Their numbers dwindle. In 1998, women earned 35% of doctorates awarded in the sciences, and they accounted for 18% of research proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even after its pivotal study on the status of women in science, not one woman has been appointed department head in the School of Science. Within the broader scientific community, women are also frozen out of editorial positions, positions of particular responsibility and power.

At higher rungs of the ladder, are there fewer women because it is mostly women that must juggle their personal, family, and professional lives? According to successful women who have published suggestions for junior women on how they, too, can do this, the answer is yes. But I say no, there's more to it than just that: after all, single-parent men must pay the same tiresome attention to these conflicting demands. After reading one paper of practical suggestions on this juggling, a female colleague said, "I am ready to vomit.'' And then, in a voice whose intensity began to escalate, "It fails to even mention the real issues women must address if they are to ever succeed in science.''

If it's not interest or ability, and if it's not juggling personal, family, and professional lives, then what are some of the real issues that women--and men--must face so that all talented women can succeed in science if they want to? I wonder ...

Things I Wonder About...

  • I wonder why most people fail to admit publicly that men and women have genuine, fundamental differences in personality and perspective. I wonder why most people downplay or dismiss these differences rather than acknowledge and accept them.

  • I wonder why most women fail to take advantage of resources designed to help them succeed in science. I wonder why most women never ask about the mere existence of these resources.

  • I wonder why some women evolve into queen bees, women that hope to preserve their academic status by impeding or destroying the careers of junior women. I wonder if these queen bees realize what they're doing. I wonder if they can evolve into mentors.

  • I wonder if female instructors tell male students that they can't possibly understand mathematics or that they shouldn't read books other than the text because those books will only confuse them.

  • I wonder if men notice when they are talked at rather than talked with. I wonder if the statement of a man is ignored until a woman says the same thing, at which point other women will acknowledge the remark.

  • I wonder why most men address publicly their colleagues in a manner determined by gender: Dr. MaleScientist and Patricia. I wonder why these men claim they can't do it differently. I wonder if these men fail to take responsibility for their behavior in other areas of their lives.

  • I wonder why most men have trouble with a woman who is confident and assertive. I wonder why these men think it's the woman's problem.

  • I wonder why most men view a woman as a daughter or as a woman rather than as a scientist who simply happens to be a woman.

  • I wonder why men make unwanted advances on women. I wonder why many of these women feel they must suck it up and deal with these predatory advances. I wonder if junior women feel they even have a chance at escape.

  • I wonder if stop-the-clock policies--these policies grant maternity leave to women, ostensibly without penalty to their aspirations in science--are cosmetic or real.

  • I wonder why just one woman gave a Distinguished Lectureship for the American Physiological Society at Experimental Biology 2000. (Thirteen men did.) I wonder what message this conveys to graduate and postdoctoral students of both genders.

Success in Science: a Game of Strategy

Like the process of publication, success in science is a game. For men and women. The object of the game is to scale the pinnacle of scientific achievement and responsibility. If you happen to be a woman, chances are your climb toward this pinnacle is hindered by conditions that underlie the things I wonder about. The notion that success in science is a game lies also at the heart of the matter.

It is from the perspective of someone who has often done things against the proverbial grain that I offer the following strategies to help you succeed in the game of science.

  • Do not allow yourself to be a victim.

    If you find yourself in a bad or wrong situation, document everything. Take action: discuss if you can; confront if you must. But do something. And do it with the support of people that are on your side.

  • Accept that most men have trouble with women. Work around those men.

    It is noble to think you can reform these men. It is also futile. Know two things: that these men have trouble working with you is not your problem; what is your problem is knowing how to work with these men despite their problem. If these men are confused, remind them that your relationship with them is strictly professional. You may have to do this often: Some men are idiots when it comes to women. To focus on strategies to work around these men, ask yourself this question: Do I want to be mad, or do I want to be effective?

  • Take charge of your education and your career.

    No one else is going to. Begin early. Decide what you want to do, and then figure out how to do it. Talk to the people that can help you learn about the things you should be doing and that can help you do them. Talk with faculty or senior colleagues. Ask colleagues to review your grant proposal before you submit it. Take management training or leadership skills classes.

  • Focus on academic activities that will advance your scientific career.

    There is only so much time in the day. As much as you might want to, it is impossible to do everything for everyone. Be realistic: set priorities, and be selective. Serving on a particular committee might be altruistic, but if it is superfluous to your career, then find a diplomatic way to decline. Succeed, become powerful, and then become generous with your time.

  • Make yourself visible to establish your presence.

    Volunteer to give a presentation. Volunteer to serve on a study section: You will benefit in ways you can't possibly imagine. Propose and then write an invited review.

  • Find personal allies and professional advocates.

    Identify people--they may be in other departments or at other institutions--that care, and with whom you can talk about science, academia, and life. Remember that you can learn by working with any terrific mentor. Often, your greatest allies may be men with daughters.

  • If you think you need help, ask for it.

    It is a sign of confidence and strength to be able to ask for help. Besides, most people like to offer their help. Give them the chance. It will be to your benefit.

  • Practice.

    Remember, this is a game at which you want to succeed. You do want to succeed, don't you? So practice the skills or behaviors--most of them have nothing to do with science itself--that will help you succeed.

Some Final Thoughts

It is a protracted, often painful, process to affect the inertia of a culture. So it is with the matter of women in science. But if women practice strategies to succeed in science, and if all of us--women and men--talk openly about barriers to that success, then some day, the culture of science will afford women the same pay, the same recognition, and the same access to information, resources, and responsibility that it affords men. And that will be as it should have been all along.


For sharing quantitative information, I thank Mary Golladay and Vernon Ross. For sharing their ideas and their time, I thank these women: Nicole Bliss, Coleman Cooper, Kim Edgar, Karen "Kaz'' Purre, and Drs. Kim Barrett, Mary Clutter, Penny Hansen, Laurel Harken, Robin Harvan, Toby Horn, Shirley Malcom, Marsha Lakes Matyas, Mary Potter, Dee Silverthorn, and Patti Thureen.

Some References and Resources

  • American Association of University Women

  • Association for Women in Science

  • R. C. Barnett, P. Carr, A. D. Boisnier, A. Ash, R. H. Friedman, M. A. Moskowitz, and L. Szalacha, "Relationships of gender and career motivation to medical faculty members' production of academic publications," Acad. Med. 73, 180-186 (1998).

  • M. Carnes, "Balancing family and career: advice from the trenches," Ann. Intern. Med. 125, 618-620 (1996).

  • Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, "A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT," MIT Faculty Newsletter , 11 (1999).

  • K. Dickersin, L. Fredman, K. M. Flegal, J. D. Scott, and B. Crawley, "Is there a sex bias in choosing editors?" JAMA 280, 260-264 (1998).

  • Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 1998.

  • H. Etzkowitz, C. Kemelgor, M. Neuschatz, B. Uzzi, and J. Alonzo, "The paradox of critical mass for women in science," Science 266, 51-54 (1994).

  • Follow Science Careers

    Search Jobs

    Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

    Top articles in Careers