Science: a Man's World


March 31, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Forget about the antediluvian men's country clubs and dining societies. When it comes to retrograde attitudes toward equality of women, the really invulnerable bastions are the Washington-based organizations that run American science.

Science, the embodiment of truth-seeking and enlightenment, inhospitable to women? Yes, indeed. A web of alibis has been spun to explain away the situation. But the basic fact is that the governance of science is predominantly under the control of a self-perpetuating old-boy network that has endured for decades.

At the top of the federal science hierarchy is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, home base of the president's science adviser -- all 11 of them men since the office was established 35 years ago. All four associate directors of the present office are male, continuing a pattern that has prevailed, with rare exception, since the beginning.

Attached to the science office is an outside committee of seasoned scientists and engineers, the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which reports directly to the president. Present membership: 12 men, one woman.

At the National Science Foundation, the government mainstay for non-medical science in universities, all the directors have been male throughout the foundation's 42-year existence. Within the foundation, the presidentially appointed National Science Board functions as the equivalent of a board of trustees. Present membership: 21 men and one woman.

What's now called the Department of Energy once had a woman at the helm, Dixy Lee Ray, who chaired the predecessor Atomic Energy Commission from 1973-75. But this department, the main source of money for physics, is another male-dominated enclave. Its senior committee of outside experts is the secretary's Energy Advisory Board. Present membership: 28 men and one woman.

At the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Bernadine Healy is the first woman director, 12 of the 13 research institutes are headed by men. Dr. Healy inherited a 12-member Advisory Committee to the Director. Present membership: 10 men and two women.

The main center of professional recognition, prestige and influence in science is the National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress in 1863 as both an honorary society and an adviser to government. Election to the academy, by vote of the membership, is the highest honor in American science, short of the Nobel Prize. Present membership: 1,499 men and 67 women. The most recent annual election voted in 55 men and 5 women.

Closely associated with the science academy is the National Academy of Engineering, established in 1964 to honor distinction in engineering and advise the federal government. Present membership: 1,605 men and 23 women. The last election brought in 76 men and 3 women.

The standard alibi for the male-female imbalances is that women in large numbers are relative newcomers to science and engineering and the number with the seasoning required for senior posts and great honor is fairly small. There is a nugget of merit to that explanation, but it has been diminishing for many years, and the numbers show it.

In 1979, according to government figures, 11,118 women with doctoral degrees in science or engineering were employed in research and development. Comparable males numbered 88,764. Ten years later, the ranks of female Ph.Ds in research and development had risen to 26,658, while the number of men had increased to 127,456.

Though the balance is changing, men still heavily predominate in science and engineering. Nonetheless, the number of women in these professions is now quite substantial. And many women have acquired the professional experience and distinction deemed essential for managing research and advising politicians about the complexities of science and technology.

The alibis for male dominance in science and engineering are threadbare, but the old-boy system endures.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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