February 25, 2005

Scholars discuss how women scientists are lacking at University

"The glass ceiling is still in place¬ówe just have better Windex and lint-free cloth," Shannon Hackett, the first speaker at a panel discussion organized by Women in Science, said on Thursday, February 24. The event, "Women as a Minority in Science: A University of Chicago Forum," featured panelists from across scientific fields as well as Richard Saller, provost of the University.

Fourth-year in the College and event organizer Keren Ledin introduced the event, asking speakers to keep their remarks focused on University policies and goals and, perhaps, subtly reminding speakers that the forum was not the place to debate Harvard President Lawrence Summer's recent remarks on the lack of women in scientific fields.

At 5:30 p.m., the scheduled start time for the event, people were still streaming into Ida Noyes East lounge. With the room filled to capacity, organizers scrambled to bring in more chairs for students and faculty who came to listen. Even with extra chairs, many people stood for the entire discussion, and half way through the hour and a half panel, there were still people standing in the doorway, peering into the room. Ledin estimated that 160 to 180 attended the panel.

The speakers spanned the scientific disciplines, and each offered thoughts on issues facing women in the sciences at the University. Hackett, a lecturer in Organismal Biology and Anatomy, commented that though women have made advances, they have yet to reach the "power positions."

Saller commented on the issues facing women in the sciences from an administrative position. "There is some progress, but not enough," he said. "[We need] focused, active effort." Saller also discussed the need to distinguish between policy issues (top-down edicts or policies in departments that discriminate against women) and environmental issues (the working environment within departments).

Saller acknowledged that there is much work to be done. "There is passive good will [in the science departments towards women]," he said, "but I am sure there is not as much focused effort for change."

He also highlighted ways in which the University is actively working to attract and retain talented women faculty. For example, in the Physical Sciences Division (PSD), only 12 percent of the faculty is currently women. To improve this, Saller said, the department has made a program to hire women straight out of graduate school. Saller also stressed that once women are in "the system" at the University, they have identical success rates to those of men.

Peggy Mason, associate professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division and chair of the Committee on Neurobiology, discussed the need for diversity on all levels, not only gender. "There is an enormous pool of people that we never get to see and never get to take advantage of their talents," she said.

Mason also discussed issues of self-esteem with women in the sciences. She cited her own experiences as a graduate student at Harvard University, where she constantly felt as though she was not as smart as her male peers, even though she consistently received high grades.

Ka Yee Lee, associate professor in the chemistry department, agreed with Mason. She described an "imposter complex," in which many women in the sciences fear that someone will discover they are not good enough. "It eats into your confidence," she said. "It eats into your ability."

Lee also discussed the different issues that women have to deal with, such as balancing personal life with professional, and the pressure to be a role model to other up-and-coming women in the department. She suggested that the University look at its maternity and paternity leave policies.

Dean of the physical sciences division Robert Fefferman described the lack of women in the sciences as a Catch-22 situation, because departments need women to attract women. He said the University's situation being heavily dependent on resources. "We fight hard for the absolute top scholars," he said. "Both men and women."

Fefferman described how the University often loses scholars to other schools that can offer them more resources.

The panelists took questions from both Ledin and the audience. Audience members asked several questions regarding childcare and parental leave at the University.

Elisabeth Montegna, a graduate student in molecular genetics and cell biology, challenged Saller about the University's lack of a childcare center.

"How is it that there is no place for a childcare," she asked, "when buildings are popping up left, right, and center?"

In response, Saller announced that the University is working on making infant care a reality for faculty and graduate students. The difficulty with a childcare center, he said, was the regulations that the city of Chicago places on childcare centers.

All the panelists agreed that there was much more work to be done in not only attracting women to the sciences, but also retaining them.

Ledin described the panel as an important forum. "These events are vital to the success for the University as a whole," she said. "The panel is a beginning¬óbut it is important to get these issues on the table and to hold the proper authorities responsible for lack of integration."