Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Doing Science While Female

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

In 1969, Sue V. Rosser, then in her early twenties, entered the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s graduate zoology program. In 2005, as a dean of the Georgia Institute of Technology, she attended the meeting at which then–Harvard University President Lawrence Summers presented his instantly notorious remarks about the causes of women’s underrepresentation in the upper reaches of academic science. Summers acknowledged the “general clash between [women’s] legitimate family desires” and the intense time demands of fast-track academic careers.

But then he went on to cite “issues of intrinsic aptitudes, and particularly the variability of aptitude,” that are “reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” These comments “appalled and shocked” many of his listeners, “who had worked and conducted substantial research on women in science for more than two decades,” writes Rosser in her 13th book, Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science.

The most compelling argument is simple equity. Women who have the ability and desire to do science deserve the same opportunities to pursue their ambitions as men.

Rosser earned her Ph.D. in zoology in a speedy 4 years. Early in her faculty career, an invitation to teach a course on women and biology ignited an interest that led her to shift her research focus from doing science to studying women in science. Today, she is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at the San Francisco State University in California, with an appointment in sociology as well as women and gender studies. Her book provides an answer to Summers based on the experiences of women scientists during the two generations between 1969 and today.

This article is part of a Science Careers special issue on Women in Science. See also:
* “Just Herself”
* “Career Q&A: Lia Merminga

Earning the top grade in her first science course, a 400-person introductory biology class, won her an invitation to work in the professor’s lab, which she did until she graduated. She also added a second major in biology to her long-planned major in French. Her professor strongly encouraged her to pursue scientific research. But he also often kissed and hugged her—and, she eventually learned, every other female student who worked for him. Back before sexual harassment even had a name, neither she nor any of her fellow victims knew what to do about abuse by so powerful a man, she writes.

Courtesy of NYU Press

Rosser was married by the time she entered graduate school. When she began to think about a dissertation topic, she was pregnant with her first child. The students of her primary graduate professor generally did fieldwork in Africa, but the professor told Rosser that she would do her research on specimens at the Field Museum in Chicago. An expectant mother, he informed her, wouldn’t want to take the risk of spending time in a developing country. During her second pregnancy, her postdoc supervisor took a different attitude: He unsuccessfully urged her to get an abortion because the birth would conflict with the lab’s grant-writing schedule.

Lives in science

I know of these problematic events, and a good deal more about Rosser’s life in academe, because she weaves her experiences into a detailed analysis of the stages of academic science careers, from college student to senior researcher and administrator. But the book is not a memoir: In addition to Rosser's story, it contains revealing examples and insights from several dozen successful female scientists, most of them academics, whom she has interviewed about their lives and careers.

Many of their accounts highlight what Rosser calls microinequities: incidents of unfairness that each could be considered minor but that over time accumulate and become a drag on a career. Collections of apparently small slights—not being invited to give a talk, not being included as a co-author on a paper, getting assigned more service responsibilities or fewer grad students than other faculty members, being left out of influential gossip networks—have impeded the progress of many able women over the years. The accounts and advice of Rosser and her interviewees can help readers recognize and counter such slights.

Sue V. Rosser

Sue V. Rosser

Courtesy of San Francisco State University

Rosser also gives well-deserved attention to the macroinequity that so many academic women still face: the clash Summers recognized between the tenure clock and the biological clock. “Only one in three women who takes a fast-track (elite or research) university job before having a child ever becomes a mother,” Rosser writes. This conflict, research shows, is now the primary reason why women leave academic science.

Rosser also highlights an issue that has received scant attention and deserves a good deal more: that many fewer women than men patent their work. Patents often boost, sometimes very substantially, the incomes of universities and individual faculty members and enhance the visibility and advancement prospects of patent-holding professors. Rosser urges women to develop the attitudes, skills, knowledge, and networks needed to secure patents, and explains the steps that universities and mentors should take to make sure women are prepared.

Gender and research

Rosser writes from a frankly feminist viewpoint, and gender explains a good deal about the choices, opportunities, obstacles, and stereotypes that people have encountered historically in scientific careers. It does not, however, explain everything. I happened to read this book while on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near the national monument at Kill Devil Hills that honors two of history’s great technological innovators, the Wright brothers.

What do these famous, dead, white men have to do with the choices faced by female scientists who are seeking careers despite family responsibilities and hostile stereotypes? The Wrights also faced family choices and hostile stereotypes. Wilbur claimed not to “have time for both a wife and an airplane,” writes biographer Tom Crouch, which may explain why neither brother married.

For years, much of their time went into struggling to overcome the skepticism and negative stereotyping of the scientific establishment, which doubted that two unknown bicycle mechanics from Ohio with no formal education beyond high school had solved a problem that had confounded the best minds since the beginning of time. Their knowledge of bicycles had, in fact, provided insights that were crucial to their triumph: The flyer must be dynamic; the pilot plays a role in this dynamism; practice could teach the pilot to keep balance in the inherently unstable machine.

The Wrights, of course, were not academics or conventional careerists: They were visionary autodidacts. Through years of study and experimentation supported by the proceeds of their bicycle shop, they educated themselves in physics, aerodynamics, the anatomy of birds, and many other subjects. (Since we’re on the subject of technological women, the Wright boys learned mechanical skills from their mother, Susan, who had acquired knowledge of tools and a knack for making things in her father’s carriage shop.)

The challenges the Wrights faced weren't identical to those that confront women seeking scientific careers. But the Wrights' experiences demonstrate that doing cutting-edge work in a difficult and highly competitive field can exact hard personal choices from anyone. As Rosser documents, the culture of science has stacked those choices very severely against women.

But as Rosser’s interviews also reveal, conditions for academic women have changed drastically. Research shows that today, female academics who, like the Wrights, choose not to have children progress in their careers as well or better than men.

Of course, some important changes are still needed to soften the needlessly hard choice that many women face between having children and having a successful science career. It's far from clear whether universities will make those changes in today’s buyer’s market for scientists, as we’ve noted before on Science Careers.

Rosser, unfortunately, chooses to argue for those changes on questionable grounds: that women are needed to meet an impending shortage of scientific talent and because they bring special insights to research. The first claim comports with neither the reality of today’s overcrowded scientific labor market nor the findings of the best experts who study it, who have concluded that no such shortage exists. The second is persuasive for medicine and certain areas of biology, but less so for other fields of science.

The most compelling argument is simple equity. Women who have the ability and desire to do science deserve the same opportunities to pursue their ambitions as men. Rosser’s gender-based analysis provides information that universities can use to help make that possible. It also offers guidance for women seeking to maneuver astutely in the competition for academic advancement.

The reality of today’s overcrowded labor market nonetheless means that many able scientists of both genders will be unable to attain the academic careers that they seek—and that many other talented women, as well as men, will forgo science in favor of careers that promise an easier path, opportunities for better work-life balance, and a more certain and lucrative payoff on their substantial investments.