Women in science: The gender divide remains
“We were working with a vacuum tube, and, like a foolish person, I touched it and got an electric shock,” Tilghman recalled. “The professor happened to be walking by and said, ‘That’s why there are no girls in physics.’ ”
She could have brushed off the comment, though it stung. But the fact remained that, for Tilghman and her female peers, “those kinds of things happened — not every day, but enough that if you didn’t believe you had the capacity to be a female scientist, they would start breaking you down.”
Since becoming University president in 2001 — the first woman to do so, and only the second in the Ivy League — Tilghman has devoted a significant amount of attention to the issue she faced as a college student and budding scientist: the dearth of women in science and engineering disciplines.
At the University and across the nation, the number of women in science and engineering fields has continued to climb in recent years. While the Class of 1973 graduated only one woman from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Class of 2015 female enrollment in the B.S.E. program currently stands at 38 percent, according to Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science Peter Bogucki. In the molecular biology and ecology and evolutionary biology departments, female students sometimes outnumber males.
But physics department chair Lyman Page noted that only 22 percent of physics students over the past seven years have been female — a higher number than the national average, but still less than one-fourth of all physics majors. And this number is an average, as the fluctuating numbers of female physics concentrators since 2006 has made it difficult to track an upward trend. In the Class of 2007, only one woman graduated with a degree in physics.
In most discussions about gender parity in the sciences, the leaky pipeline theory is frequently mentioned. According to Tilghman, the theory postulates that women drop out from science programs at every level of education. This explains the absence of women in faculty positions: They remove themselves from the pool by not even applying to programs, she explained.
To investigate this theory, the University appointed the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty in the Natural Sciences and Engineering in 2001. The group analyzed several factors indicative of treatment of female faculty, including salaries, the rates at which men and women are granted tenure, allocation of laboratory space and research funding.
Though the report noted an increase in female faculty since 1992 — especially in the ecology and evolutionary biology and chemical engineering departments — women were still significantly underrepresented in departmental leadership positions. Equally troubling was the fact that women reported a lower sense of collegiality, inclusion and job satisfaction than their male counterparts.
The report, Tilghman noted, made several recommendations that have “led to a number of real policy changes.” The recommendations focused on family-friendly policies that would encourage women to pursue an academic career while raising children, she said.
“They’ve done a lot for work-life balance and aspects of childrearing,” Alison Gammie said, a senior lecturer in the molecular biology department, referring to the discounted childcare services and automatic tenure extension offered for new parents.
Gammie also acknowledged the prevalence of the leaky pipeline theory, mentioning that only 25 percent of applicants to postdoctoral programs are women.
“If you get off the fast track, you’re off — that I know,” she added, referring to the fact that she voluntarily chose not to pursue a faculty position. Though she didn’t express regret about her decision, she emphasized the struggle that women face in deciding between a career and raising a family.
“Think of it as having a conversation with your future self,” she said. “At some point, your kids won’t need you anymore. Then, are you going to be sorry that you left your career in science to have children?”
While the molecular biology department boasts a relatively large number of female faculty, others, like the stereotypically male discipline of engineering, show a greater gender divide.
“There are a lot of stereotypes about engineers — that you sit in a cubicle all day and get carpal tunnel,” Jennifer Rexford ’91, a professor in the computer science department, said. For girls in high school, she said, this image can affect their decision to take engineering and math classes. As a result of social pressure, “the gap [between genders] turns into a gulf.”
Tilghman also expressed frustration about the persistence of the pipeline trend. “It’s discouraging and something that hasn’t changed a lot since I started paying attention to the issue 30 years ago,” she said.
The Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, Tilghman’s most recent investigation of women’s academic success on campus, set the campus abuzz last March when it published a report concluding that female students on campus were still underrepresented in leadership roles. Arguing that women lacked confidence in their own skills, the report recommended that mentoring programs be set up for female students, for whom, Tilghman said, “encouragement is particularly important.”
Some departments have responded directly to the Steering Committee’s findings. The physics department now reaches out to students at the end of their freshman year if they have the potential to join the department, Tilghman said, adding that the initiative is gender-blind because the physics department has been historically small. The Women’s Center and Mathey College have also begun to sponsor mentorship programs targeted toward female students, though these are not specific to women in science.
In general, however, students have organized most of the mentoring programs for women in science and engineering on campus. Emma Schultz ’12, a mechanical and aerospace engineer and co-president of the Society of Women Engineers, described the mentorship program organized through SWE as “a comfort for me and a way to meet people from other engineering majors.”
Rather than seeking to separate students by gender, SWE aims to unite students who share academic interests, Schultz said. “I identify as an engineer,” she said. “Since Princeton is a liberal arts school, there’s a fairly small percentage of us. Finding out that one of my peers is also an engineer seems to almost instantly connect us.”
Meanwhile, Princeton Women in Computer Science presidents Kaitlin Stouffer ’13 and Amy Ousterhout ’13 have been working to tailor their program more effectively to participants. Their organization brings major science and technology companies to campus to conduct workshops and talks for women interested in science and engineering careers.
“We did a trial version over the spring semester last year with four to five individuals per mentoring group,” Ousterhout said. “It worked okay, but people didn’t really seem to be committed, so this year we’re switching to pairing students.”
Ousterhout is also an executive editor for web for The Daily Princetonian.
In implementing mentoring programs, students and faculty have noticed that the most challenging aspect is matching up mentors and mentees who can connect on a personal level.
“Good mentoring programs are one of the very hardest things to achieve,” Tilghman noted. “There’s got to be good chemistry. You can’t mandate that.”
Rexford said that, because of age differences and the presence of eating clubs on campus, the chances for women of different classes to cross paths are often low, making formal mentoring programs more beneficial. But many students cited the informal relationships they struck up in class or in extracurriculars as their most valuable source of mentoring and advice.
Co-president of SWE Lindsey Brown ’12, a chemical and biological engineering major, said that “there is a lot of camaraderie” between students regardless of gender, especially because many upper-level engineering classes are so small. “The 30 of us have gotten so close,” she said of her fellow students in the CBE department.
Stouffer also acknowledged the importance of receiving advice from older, more experienced students, mentioning that she learned a lot about “course selection, summer opportunities and scholarship opportunities” from Jennifer King ’11, co-founder of Princeton Women in Computer Science.
“The gut reaction when you have a question about something is to first ask classmates,” Michelle Lu ’11, a graduate of the physics department, said. “Then, when no one seems to know because everyone’s just as confused as you are, to find an upperclassman who’s been through the same thing.”
Tilghman has made it clear that women are by no means the only group to benefit from mentoring. “Everyone needs encouragement at some level, and positive feedback,” she said.
Julien Dubuis, a fifth-year graduate student in the physics department, said that he sought advice from several mentors including undergraduate students and his grandmother.
“I feel that a great mentor would be someone for whom I could have empathy, and who could have empathy for me,” he said.
But when asked whether male students might need mentoring just as much as women, Tilghman maintained that “men and women approach the way they navigate the Princeton education differently.” Although some men may certainly have less confidence, she said, this problem is more endemic in women.
Rexford acknowledged the large strides in improvement that the University has made since her time as an electrical engineering student, particularly the policy changes made after the 2001 task force. While speaking to some of the earlier alumnae during Reunions, however, she realized that several women had “conflicted feelings” about their experiences as undergraduates, and tended to identify specifically with other women from neighboring classes rather than their graduating class year as a whole.
“I met so many women who hadn’t been back to Princeton since they graduated,” she said. Additionally, although several female students interviewed felt that gender parity in science and engineering departments was no longer as pressing of an issue, Brown mentioned a statistic that gives reason for pause: Three girls still drop engineering for every two male students.
Tilghman attributed these lingering symptoms to a deeper issue that might not necessarily be remedied immediately by University policy or mentoring programs. “There are cultural norms that need to change, and the women who grew up in the first blooming of the feminist revolution thought things would change overnight,” Tilghman said. “That was foolish, and I think all of us realize that this is going to take longer than one generation.”
Ultimately, Tilghman said, the University still has work to do.
She used an anecdote from 20 years ago to illustrate this point, remembering an incident where she and a male co-chair drew up a list of speakers for a conference on molecular genetics and one-third of the scientists they invited were women. A year later, when her co-chair organized the event with another male, only two women were invited.
“That’s the kind of completely subconscious bias that make it difficult for women,” she said. “I’ve known those two guys for my entire career, and I think they’re great. And yet, that’s the outcome. That’s the thing that still exists.”