Science vs. women: A radical solution

Shirley M. Tilghman

January 27, 1993|By Shirley M. Tilghman

SCIENCE, like all human activity, has its individual cultural milieu.

The culture of science evolved in a period when it was being practiced exclusively by men -- and that has greatly influenced the outcome. It is a men's game and it continues to be played by men's rules.

Although we would like to believe that scientists are driven by a desire to understand some aspect of the natural world, in fact they are also driven by a desire for personal recognition.

Sociologists of science such as Robert Merton have identified this need for personal recognition as a motivating force in science. This can lead to behavior which is, at the very least, unattractive: aggressive attacks on competitors, secrecy, sometimes even prevarication.

Linda Wilson, president of Radcliffe and a chemist, recently raised a firestorm by suggesting that the fierce rivalries and ruthless competition among scientists was incompatible with the inclusion of women and minorities in science.

She predicted there will be little change in women's participation until scientific decorum changes. The predictable reaction from men was to extol aggression as the fuel that drives the enterprise and to argue that any attempt to civilize scientific discourse will be its undoing.

Feminists have generally had two responses to this issue. On one side, it has been acknowledged that aggression is a necessary quality for a scientist and that we should be encouraging it in our female students. The opposite view is that women should and will stay out of science so long as it is practiced in such a distasteful way.

I find the latter position unappealing at best: Ceding the playing field to males will lead to no change. My response is, as much as possible, to encourage my female students to be verbal, confident and curious.

The second cultural aspect that dramatically affects the prospects for women's participation in science careers is the jealous demands on our time.

A friend of mine once described science as a black hole, prepared to suck up whatever proportion of your life that you allow it. This complete devotion to science was fostered in the culture of the '50s in which women stayed home and raised families while their husbands conquered the secrets of the universe.

When women began to enter science careers in the 1940s and 1950s, they were expected to renounce any intention of having a family. This is the ultimate un-level playing field, one that persists to this day.

Women have paid a terrible price for the success they have realized in the last 20 years. Studies of all fields, not just science, document that women have forgone marriage and children for their success.

The problem of reconciling a scientific career with some semblance of a normal life is exacerbated by the tenure system. A woman is usually 30 years of age before assuming an assistant professorship at a university, which puts her tenure decision at age 35 to 36. Thus her critical scientific years, in which she is establishing her reputation, and her peak reproductive years coincide.

This is a dirty trick. Many in my own generation chose to forgo child-bearing until the security of tenure had been granted, only to find that their biological clock had stopped ticking.

Institutions are beginning to grapple with this problem, with different solutions. Some have initiated programs allowing women to have one or more years before the tenure decision to compensate for the time lost in child-bearing. Others have adopted policies to allow both fathers and mothers to take this option.

I favor an even more radical solution: Abolish tenure entirely, in favor of rolling appointments that are reviewed regularly.

Tenure is no friend to women. It does not protect them from institutional discrimination. Rather, it rigidifies their career path when they need maximum flexibility.

Ultimately we must solve this conflict between work and family if we hope to increase the participation of women in science. The alternative is to accept that women will never reach parity or continue to pay an unequal price for their success.

It is not sufficient to improve child care, though that is certainly a worthy short-term goal. And I would not advocate a society in which our children are raised by efficient and subsidized surrogate parents. Rather I would like to create a workplace in which our roles in our families and in society are equally valued. I have sat through too many late-night sessions at scientific meetings listening to my male colleagues brag about their busy schedules and long absences from home.

Science will never be a 9-to-5 profession. It just doesn't work that way. There will always be the astrophysicist who has to spend weeks at a telescope on a mountain in Hawaii, the geologist who runs when the volcano blows, the biologist who has to give injections every three hours round the clock.

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