Women in Science: Climbing the Career Ladder More women today are studying science and getting advanced degrees. But the picture changes in the working world: the higher the position, the fewer the women. A recent study in the journal Science documents the obstacles that hold women back. We'll talk with women in the sciences about their experiences climbing the career ladder.
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Women in Science: Climbing the Career Ladder

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Women in Science: Climbing the Career Ladder

Women in Science: Climbing the Career Ladder

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Since 1994, the National Science Foundation has been trying to what it calls embed diversity in science and engineering. Last month, the NSF reported that its efforts are paying off. More women and minorities are studying science today. In biology, for example, women are earning almost half of all PhDs. That's the good news. But once these new women PhDs get jobs and are eligible for promotions, they begin dropping out. By the time they get up as far as full professors of biology, fewer than 15 percent are women. And the number of women professors in physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering are far smaller.

Why aren't women making better progress in science? Last week, 11 highly successful women scientists, including two chancellors and a university president, published a paper in the journal Science. They documented four barriers that are holding women back or forcing them out of science completely. The first roadblock is the pipeline. In some fields, few women students add up to very few women in higher positions. Add the pipeline problem to the second obstacle; many women say that when they go to work, they don't feel very welcome. One survey at four big universities actually found that men said the atmosphere had warmed up for women scientists, while the women said they still felt a big chill. Then there is unconscious bias that puts women at a disadvantage. When the time comes to award grants, prizes, jobs and tenure, both men and women seem to judge women more harshly, especially when they're on a tight deadline and time is short. And finally there's the problem of balancing family and work. Women, including those in science, are more likely to have a lot to do at home.

So this hour, three scientists who have run that gauntlet and are here to talk about their own experiences with these obstacles, and what works when they have to overcome them, what they've done. They're here to talk about them--what do you have, maybe you have a story of your own. Please, I invite you to join us. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Now let me introduce my guests. Dr. Molly Carnes is one of the authors of the Science paper. She's a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, where she's also director of the Center for Women's Health Research. Dr. Carnes is on the phone form her home in Wisconsin.


Dr. MOLLY CARNES (University of Wisconsin Medical School): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. Maria Klawe is a professor of computer science and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton in Princeton, New Jersey, where for the first time the president is a woman and a scientist. Dr. Klawe joins me now by phone from her office at Princeton.


Dr. MARIA KLAWE (Princeton University): Thank you. It's nice to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. Paula Hammond is associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, where she's also coordinator of the Center for Soldier Nanotechnologies. She also has mentored African-American teen-agers along with undergraduate and graduate students and junior faculty. She's joining us today from the MIT campus.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Hammond.

Dr. PAULA HAMMOND (MIT): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Let me ask you first, Dr. Carnes, what made you decide to write this paper?

Dr. CARNES: Well, we thought it was time, I think--as you very nicely summarized, we have made a lot of progress, but we could be making more progress. We really are not making full use of our potential domestic work force, and we wanted to draw people's attention to it.

FLATOW: Tell me about your own personal experiences. And I'm sure you must have come across these obstacles yourself.

Dr. CARNES: Well, yes, of course. I have a personal connection to the whole issue of women in science, which I think has, you know, drawn me to the area. You know, I think the other two women on the phone certainly must have shared experiences in this area, too. I think it's the unconscious biases, I think, that are the most...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. CARNES: ...interesting, though, because we all have these. And that really opened my eyes, too, that I myself harbor unconscious biases about women.

FLATOW: Could you actually see, as you moved up the ladder, women dropping by the wayside?

Dr. CARNES: Oh, yes.

FLATOW: I mean, were there--you started out at the medical school where 50 percent of students are women, but by the time you got tenure, how many were there?

Dr. CARNES: Well, when I got tenure in 1990, there were no tenured women in my department, which is the department of medicine, internal medicine, which is the largest department in the university. So I was the only tenured woman for five years, and now I believe we have four tenured women.

FLATOW: Dr. Klawe, you've been a dean at Princeton for two and a half years now.

Dr. KLAWE: That's right.

FLATOW: What did you find when you first arrived there?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, one of the things that--I was very happy when I arrived that there were 12 other women faculty here in the School of Engineering, which was almost 10 percent at that point, and that's relatively high for a school of engineering. And so, you know, I thought this was really great. And then about two weeks into my job, I happened to be attending a workshop put on by the National Academy of Engineering on best practices for increasing diversity in engineering schools with two of the women faculty, and I said something about how great it was, about all the women at Princeton, and one of them just gave me a look and said, `Yeah, but they're all this close to leaving.' And this close was, you know, thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KLAWE: And I was just stunned. And so for the next few weeks, I walked around talking to women faculty. And it was really true, particularly for the tenured women. Every single one I talked to was really unhappy. And the things they were unhappy about varied a lot, but they really had a lot to do with the climate and, you know, the fact that they just felt that they weren't being taken seriously as researchers or as department colleagues in the same way that men were. They could see a lot of inequities. And I'm happy to say that I think virtually every one of those women now is a lot happier two and a half years later. But it was really an eye-opener for me.

FLATOW: So let's talk a bit about that. What did you do as dean to make these women feel better?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, one thing I did was make three of them over the last two and a half years my associate teams. And one of those three is now the chair of chemical engineering, Kyle Vanderlick. And simply by being able to spend a lot more time with them and understand what the issues were, I was actually able with a lot of support, I've got to say, from the president and the dean of the faculty and so on, to actually address a number of the issues. So a lot of it was actually just listening carefully, understanding what the issues were, trying to figure out what the background was, and then acting with the people who were in power to actually change them to change them.

FLATOW: Well, one of those people in power is the president of Princeton, who's Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist.

Dr. KLAWE: Absolutely. And one of the, I think, strongest advocates for the need for more women in science and engineering and I think one of the--it's really true that Princeton has taken a lot of steps in the four years that Shirley's been president to increase--to hire more women. And it's making a difference.

FLATOW: Dr. Hammond, you're an associate professor; you're up for full professor this year. You're in chemical engineering. Less than 20 percent of PhDs get to your level, associate professor. Less than 5 percent then go on to full professorship.


FLATOW: Do you think there--what do you think that reason is?

Dr. HAMMOND: Actually, that's very disappointing. But I actually experienced some of it in my own work. I've known several very bright graduate students who come to me talking about entering academia, and the concern they express first and foremost are the concerns of work and family. They are concerned that if they become an assistant professor, they will have absolutely no time to either meet someone and begin a family or to foster a marriage or to have a child. So I've had a lot of comments from graduate students who would make excellent professors, who then even with some encouragement choose to go into industry over going into academia.

FLATOW: Do you think there's some unconscious bias or a hidden discrimination at the work of an African-American woman in science?

Dr. HAMMOND: I think definitely. Often it's hard for me to discern whether I'm experiencing differences based on race or on gender. But certainly the both of them play a factor, both of them play a--and you'll see equally discouraging numbers, at least even worse numbers in terms of the fraction of African-American professors.

FLATOW: Now you work in a very, very hot field, nanotechnology. Does that help you get ahead at all?

Dr. HAMMOND: To some extent it does help because it's a field that has a lot of visibility and it allows me access to platforms that I might not otherwise have access to.

On the other hand, the fact that it's an extremely competitive field means that my colleagues are also looking to basically move in on various areas. And I think in that sense, there's always a bit of vulnerability that people sense or may assume about women scientists.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Lots of people want to talk--let's see if I can get a quick phone call in before the break. Anna in Bend, Oregon, hi.

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say I was in research at a national lab for many years, and I felt it was a very welcoming environment for women, but I felt like my biggest contribution would be to teach 'cause I think that's where my strengths are. So now I'm a high school chemistry teacher because I think that there's a huge lack of female mentors for students out there. And I have to say in my three years of teaching, I've already had a number of young women say that they're going to be chemistry majors.

Unidentified Panelist: Yea!

ANNA: So I think it's that kind of thing that we need out there, is just more women in science...

FLATOW: But the problem seems to be that we're getting more women in science, they're just not staying in science. What do you think about that, Anna?

ANNA: Well, I didn't stay, so true, because I felt like my strongest strength would be to get more people in science. And I think that the status quo retains itself, and the status quo is still male-dominated.


ANNA: I do think that there's bias out there.

FLATOW: Dr. Hammond, any comment? You...

Dr. HAMMOND: Yes, I...

FLATOW: ...mentor women, don't you?

Dr. HAMMOND: Absolutely. And the mentoring makes a huge difference. First, I should mention that it was my high school chemistry teacher that encouraged me to become a chemical engineer, and now I'm a professor in chemical engineering. So definitely the woman who just spoke is impacting the lives of young people, and directing and steering them towards science does make a difference. I mentor a number of different age levels; right now predominantly undergraduates and graduate students, but also in the past kindergarten through 12. And my sense of things is that if you can tell a young person that they are capable of doing anything and open their eyes to the beauties of science, that they will get excited about it.

FLATOW: All right. Well, hold that thought. We'll talk lots more about women in science and how they can stay there with my guests after this short break. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about women in science and engineering and how they can stay in that profession and lead the kind of lives that they would like to. My guests: Maria Klawe, professor of computer science and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey; Paula Hammond, associate professor of chemical engineering and coordinator of the Center for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT; Molly Carnes, professor of medicine, director of the Center for Women's Health Research at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Dr. Hammond, do you tell those people that you're mentoring, the women that you're mentoring, that you can have it all?

Dr. HAMMOND: Yes, actually, I do because I have a daughter, I have a husband, I have a life that really fulfills me, and I do believe that it's possible. But what I do tell them is that it won't always feel balanced, but you'll have to work at it and you'll have to recruit the help of others to do it.

FLATOW: Dr. Carnes, what has been the reaction since the publication of this paper in Science? Have you gotten, you know, support, criticism? What kind of reaction have you got?

Dr. CARNES: Well, I think generally it's been very positive. The NSF program, the advanced program that I believe you alluded to, supports about 20 sites across the country to study mechanisms of increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering. And certainly that network of people have been very excited and enthusiastic about the publication.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let's go to Melinda in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Melinda.

MELINDA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MELINDA: Hi. Well, I wanted to give you an opportunity to look at the University of Kansas. Their Web site is www.ku.edu. And if you go to `chemistry' and `faculty,' you'll see that about half of the professors that they've hired over the last two years have been women. And I'm really excited because 75 percent of our incoming graduate students this year are women. And I'm married with two kids and, like one of your speakers mentioned, you know, the lack of balance is certainly there sometimes, but, you know, I absolutely love what I do. I love analytical chemistry and I plan on staying in it for--well, this is my life career.

FLATOW: Did you meet any of those glass ceiling obstacles we were talking about, the way people look at you or treat you, things like that?

MELINDA: You know, maybe I'm just really lucky at the University of Kansas there. No one has ever made me feel uncomfortable for being a woman, for having a family to take care of. Everyone's been very cooperative. I will say that I'm joining an all-female research group, which is funny because the walls of our lab are actually painted pink. So that's something we do just to--anybody that walks in that room knows that we're women and we're women in science and we're here to stay. So...

FLATOW: Well, thank you for calling and good luck to you.

MELINDA: Yeah, I'm glad you're doing the show. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you.

MELINDA: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Savic(ph) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Hi.

SAVIC (Caller): Hi. I have a PhD in astrophysics and I have left the field. And there were a pretty wide variety of reasons for that, and I think actually a lot of them were touched on in the paper presented by your guests today.

FLATOW: You want to share some of those with us?

SAVIC: Sure. Part of the problem--I'm married to an astrophysicist and at least in the physical sciences, there's a problem known as the two-body problem, which is that a lot of women scientists are married to men scientists, and not as many men scientists are married to women scientists. And it's very difficult to get two academic jobs in the same geographic location at the same time, and so different people will choose to solve that problem different ways, either by having one partner take a job that is less than their qualifications would justify so that they can stay in the same place or leaving the field so that they can get two jobs in the same area, or they'll live, you know, bicoastal lives...

FLATOW: Right.

SAVIC: ...which is a pretty unbalanced...

FLATOW: Right.

SAVIC: ...solution. That was part of it. And...

FLATOW: Let me get a response from Dr. Klawe 'cause I know her husband is also in a similar field.

Dr. KLAWE: Yes, my husband is also a computer scientist. And, you know, one of the--we were very lucky in that we came into the field of computer science at a time when there was a tremendous demand for people in our area. And so it's always been easy for us to get a position at the same place. And so he's--I was the dean of science at the University of British Columbia before, and he was a full professor in computer science there, and now he's a full professor in computer science at Princeton. But it's certainly true that as a dean, you know, one of the biggest issues for us in terms of hiring women is finding appropriate positions for their spouse. And some universities are more progressive about this than others. Princeton is not particularly progressive, and I think that that's going to be something that's very difficult to change.

FLATOW: Is there an unspoken or maybe an even written code that says you don't, you know, hire people if their spouse has to come with them?

Dr. KLAWE: There certainly is not an unspoken code, but I think the situation is simply that the standards are so high at Princeton in terms of appointing people that the likelihood that one can find a position at Princeton is just going to be very small. I mean, it does happen...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KLAWE: ...so for--I mean, we're not the only married couple working at Princeton, by any means. So, I mean, there are several other examples. But...

FLATOW: You mentioned coming from Canada. Does Canada have a different way of looking at things?

Dr. KLAWE: Well, for example, at my previous university, there was essentially a policy that said that if the spouse--so the initial person who was being recruited could be either male or female--but if the spouse was somebody that the appropriate department was enthusiastic about hiring, resources would be made available to make sure that that could happen. And in fact, while I was dean of science at UBC, I counted up the number of married couples that worked with both people in faculty positions in the faculty of science, and there were 16 couples. So that tells you that, you know, it was definitely--it was helping us recruit very talented people.

FLATOW: OK, thanks for calling. 1 (800) 989-8255.

Dr. Hammond, when you got to MIT, were you given a mentor who helped you as much as you're mentoring these other women?

Dr. HAMMOND: Yes, actually, in my department there's a tradition of assigning two faculty mentors to a new faculty member. So I was assigned two mentors. And actually that was a wonderful experience in the sense that I had one mentor who was the first woman hired in our department and was about to get tenure. She was close in field to me, so she could relate both with respect to field and with respect to being a woman scientist. And the other mentor was actually a much older faculty member, very senior institute professor in a very different field who knew very little about my work. And the combination of the two actually worked extremely well.

FLATOW: I would think that in a lot of universities then, considering the success you had, this would be a great model to follow on?

Dr. HAMMOND: Absolutely.


Dr. HAMMOND: Absolutely. But one of the issues that faculty run into when they're going up the ladder and one of the reasons I think we lose some women faculty is that there are a number of things that aren't spoken to junior faculty that they can actually work on or change, things that they can adapt to. And unless you're getting that advice directly, it's not going to help you. And I think if left alone, mentoring is going to be less often applied to young women faculty as opposed to the young male faculty.

FLATOW: Let's got to Sarah in California. Hi, Sarah. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SARAH (Caller): Hi there. I just had a point that when I was in college at the University of California, my experience was that it was still very much male-dominated. And I think that in part and also in part that I needed to earn a living, I went into industry, which is a huge holding cell for a lot of women scientists. And while in industry, I definitely did not experience any male bias to me being a woman. I've always been welcomed at the table. I may have had to prove myself, but I've always been welcomed at the table. And it hasn't been until recently--I'm in my early 30s and I have a young son--that I'm starting to really experience the pressures of the family/work life balance. And I'm watching my peers make plays professionally either by taking jobs, going on interviews, staying long hours, that I'm not particularly comfortable doing because I want to be at home with my family. And quite a few of them have stay-at-home partners. And that's something that I've discussed in my family situation, but is really not a reality for my husband. It's not something he would choose for himself. So it's just kind of interesting because even though I've found science to be a welcoming profession, I think just the crux of trying to find work/home life balance is very hard when you have a job that is truly a full-time job, if not more so.

FLATOW: I can imagine it is. Do you think if you had stayed in academia, it might have been easier for you?

SARAH: I don't think in the college level, but I actually have looked into going and teaching at the high school level because there seems to be--even though it's very taxing in a different way, there seems to be the opportunity to have more balance.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Good luck to you.

SARAH: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Scott in Napa, California. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hi there.

SCOTT: Well, I have a question. My wife is getting into a graduate program right now in medical anthropology, and I know that's a lot more forgiving or women go--you know, there's a lot more women in the field. But, you know, she's really concerned about the way she dresses and about how she's just perceived as a woman and being taken seriously. And, you know, a lot of the universities, a lot of the women, you know, they wear little skirts and things like that and that's not, you know, at all what she likes to come across as. And so she's just concerned about a lot of those issues. And I just maybe wanted to hear some responses from your guests about that.

FLATOW: Well, let me see if any of my guests want to respond.

Dr. CARNES: I'll take that one.


Dr. CARNES: This is Molly Carnes. There is a lot of research and social and cognitive psychology, research literature that shows that overall women are allowed a much narrower range of behaviors in a professional situation than are men in order to be taken serious. So if you appear to be too feminine--you know, if you have Dolly Parton-type hair and long red fingernails, you will activate unconscious biases of incompetence. True or not, they are unconscious biases. On the other hand, if you look too...

Unidentified Guest: Masculine.

Dr. CARNES: ...masculine, you will activate unconscious biases because you are violating proscribed gender behaviors that women will not be so masculine. So women overall are allowed a much narrower range of behaviors in a professional situation. Right or wrong, your wife will need to know that.

SCOTT: Yeah. Can I ask specifically like what kind of clothes that you guys wore will you were...

Dr. CARNES: I would avoid the jungle prints.

Dr. KLAWE: Well, so I would just like to speak up for computer science...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. KLAWE: ...where the appropriate thing to wear for everybody is a T-shirt and jeans as a faculty member and as a graduate student. And that goes for women as well as men, and it's one of the reasons I actually--I mean, computer science is a relatively new discipline, and so it is less formal, and I think in many ways more proactive towards hiring women. I mean, if you look at the numbers in the article, you'll notice that 8.33 percent of full professors are women, and it's the highest of--well, it not--it's the second highest after astronomy if one takes out biology, but you'll look at the percentage of PhDs as only about 15 percent, and so it's actually--it's quite amazing that it's that way, and I think part of it is that there has been very proactive efforts, largely led through the Computing Research Association's committee on the status of women, CRA-W, to proactively mentor women into academic positions through tenure, and now they're working on from associate professor into professor, and so I actually think it makes a lot of difference.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Scott. Thanks for calling. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking about women in science this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Just got a few minutes left. Any overall advice you can give to people out there?

Dr. KLAWE: I have a piece of advice that I'd like to give about having children and having a career. I have two children, though they're now 20 and 23, so very grown-up. And what I always say to young women is there are three really important things about combining an ambitious career and having children. Number one is who you pick to be the father. And I got to say my husband is a saint and I'll bet Paula's is as well.

Dr. HAMMOND: Yes, he is.

Dr. KLAWE: And it makes a huge difference, so that's one. Pick somebody who's going to share parenting and household responsibilities. Number two, earn a good salary so that you can afford really good child care. And number three, have a flexible job so that you can have time to go to your kids' first Christmas concert or whatever it is at school. And the great thing about careers in science and engineering, including academic careers, is that they tend to do pretty well on the second and third measures. So I agree with what's being said that it doesn't feel like a balanced life most of the time, but you really can do it, and I know an awful lot of women who are doing it, who are being very successful.

FLATOW: How--go ahead.

Dr. KLAWE: No. That's it.

Dr. HAMMOND: I was just going to add to that a word of advice about picking a mentor because often when you're entering graduate school, you don't think about doing this intentionally. But making connections with other faculty members if you're in graduate school or if you're starting out in a science career in general, seeking both female and male mentors who are a little above you in your area and can give you advice can be very useful. In particular, getting advice from these sort of more standard male successful equals that you have around you can be very helpful.

FLATOW: You know, in real estate they say `location, location, location.' Is that true in choosing--should you shop for a place to work by how they treat you?

Dr. KLAWE: Absolutely.

Dr. CARNES: Absolutely.

Dr. HAMMOND: Absolutely.

Dr. KLAWE: That's I mean like one of the most important things is to--the climate of the department you're going to go into, and the general attitude at the university. Are they proactive about having more women in science and engineering or not? Some aren't.

FLATOW: Is it well-known? Could you find that out through the grapevine or...

Dr. KLAWE: Yeah.

Dr. CARNES: Just ask the women.


Dr. CARNES: And there are markers too. You know, you can look at the percent of women faculty. You can look at the percent of women graduate students post-exit as a marker because if there're very few that tells you something.

FLATOW: Well, we've run out of time, but I think--I've certainly learned a lot and hope the rest of our listeners have. I want to thank all of you for joining us. Dr. Paula Hammond of MIT, Dr. Molly Carnes, who is the co-author of the paper in Science at the University of Wisconsin in Medical School-Madison, and Dr. Maria Klawe of Princeton University, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Thank you, ladies, for joining us this hour and good luck to you.

Dr. CARNES: Thank you.

Dr. KLAWE: Thank you.

Dr. HAMMOND: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Dr. CARNES: Bye.

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break, and when we come back we're going to switch gears and talk about something totally different: leeches. Could leeches be helping to treat arthritis?

We'll be right back. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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