By Eric Hand and data analysis by J. Stephen Bolhafner
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
While the gender gap in the sciences is less of a chasm now than decades ago, St. Louis University is closing it faster than other area universities, a Post-Dispatch analysis shows.
Last academic year, women earned half of the science PhD's and held more than a third of the science faculty jobs at St. Louis University, which clearly outpaced other local schools.
Interviews with female scientists suggest the gap exists partly because some women place a higher priority on raising a family than scrapping for grant money at high-stress research universities, such as Washington University, the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Unless universities become more family-friendly, some women say they will leave the dog-eat-dog world of research to men. That may explain why St. Louis University - a Jesuit school that focuses more on teaching than on research - has more than twice as many women as Washington University, as a percentage of the science faculty.
"Women and teaching, those are two words that go together in people's minds," said Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist at the University of Wisconsin who published an article on women and science in the August issue of the journal Science. "We have a certain discomfort with women in certain roles. Science and leadership are two because it's an unfamiliar combination. That gets turned into a bias."
In the sciences, fields long dominated by men, universities face other gender inequities.
A 2001 National Research Council study found that female academic scientists earned about 20 percent less than their male counterparts - and that the wage gap hadn't narrowed in two decades (one explanation was that women were, on average, younger).
Women also get less grant money. After controlling for age, degree and institution, a 2005 Rand Institute study found that women got 83 cents from the National Institutes of Health for every dollar men got.
But the gender gap itself is shrinking. In 1966, there were eight newly minted female engineers in the entire nation. Last year, the U of I alone granted 27 engineering Ph.D.s to women.
The percentage of science and engineering Ph.D.s granted to women has climbed from 8 percent in 1966 to 38 percent in 2003, according to the National Science Foundation. A similar but subdued upswing has taken place for female science faculty: They made up 26 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty nationwide in 2001, the most recent year available.
Figures for last year show the U of I and MU still lagging behind those older national figures. Washington University granted 40 percent of its science PhDs to women, but only 14 percent of its science faculty were women.
Washington University Executive Vice-Chancellor Ed Macias said he'd like to do better but has a hard time getting female scientists to sign on the bottom line.
"They're certainly hot commodities," he said. "They're like a good center fielder for the Cardinals - they're free agents."
The order of the four area universities, from least to most women faculty, is exactly the same as the order of the universities in terms of 2002 federal research spending, from most to least, according to the University of Florida's 2004 publication "Top Research Institutions."
In other words, more research means fewer women faculty members. Are the research institutions pushing women away, or are women choosing to stay away? It appears to be a little of both.
THE BABY GAP
Brooke Van Horn is already thinking about the timing of a family as she finishes her Ph.D. in Washington University's chemistry department. She has a serious boyfriend and is aiming for a place that stresses teaching rather than research. Perhaps a place such as St. Louis University.
"There's a lot more pressure at the high-profile institutions," she said.
Indeed, 60- or even 70-hour work weeks are not unheard of at places such as Washington University. For women, there are other responsibilities. Some scientists note that women are drafted into extracurricular committees and advisory groups precisely because they are under-represented. The distractions take time away from research and publishing. Many studies have found that women publish less than men.
MU Assistant Engineering Dean Chris Weisbrook says she thinks men focus ferociously on single tasks while women juggle many tasks and avoid the cutthroat competition. Weisbrook became in 1994 the second woman at MU to earn a mechanical engineering Ph.D. With three young children, she opted for a teaching and administrative career.
That's not at all unusual, according to Mary Ann Mason, the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate Division Dean. She examined the professional careers of more than 160,000 Ph.D. recipients. She found that men who had children soon after their doctorate were 38 percent more likely to get tenure than women with babies.
"'Married with children' is the success formula for men, but the opposite is true for women, for whom there is a serious 'baby gap,'" she wrote in a 2004 article in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. She added, "Women, it seems, cannot have it all - tenure and a family - while men can."
Of course, there are many women who do have it all. Take Karen Wooley, Van Horn's advisor. Wooley heads a $13 million nanotechnology center and mothers three boys. If there are institutional roadblocks to women in science, Wooley bulldozed right over them.
"I've never felt like I was discriminated against," she said. "In fact, maybe I've benefited from being a woman, and I definitely don't like that."
University provosts are trying to address family concerns. Some paid leave is available for Washington University graduate students. The U of I has an emergency daycare program for parents who can't find a sitter. All four area universities have tenure clock rollbacks, where a faculty member with a new child can get a year stoppage on the tenure process.
But provosts need to recruit and not just retain more women, and that, they say, requires more female role models. That produces a chicken-and-egg problem: How do you get women faculty if you have none?
MU physicist Meera Chandrasekhar says her department is achieving a snowball effect after bumping the number of female faculty up to four. With the recent hires, the department joins the ranks of only 20 other physics departments nationwide, including the U of I, with four or more women faculty, according to the American Institute of Physics.
Chandrasekhar points out the potential benefit of having those additional female role models on the faculty: MU granted more than 25 percent of its physics Ph.D.s to women from 1999 to 2003, one of only 10 universities nationwide to do that.
Will those new female physicists follow in their advisors' footsteps and become the next generation's faculty role models? The odds are bad.
Nearly one out of five physics Ph.D.s in 2002 was granted to a woman. But only one in twenty of the nation's full physics professors is a woman.
"We're losing some of the very best," Handelsman said.
Job: Chemist, Washington University
Family: Married, three sons.
Karen Wooley grew up in a logging town in Oregon where men were admired for their manliness. The middle-child daughter of a millwright and a stay-at-home mother, she was aggressive at a young age, always in trouble at school for not sitting still.
She can't sit still now, either. She has become one of Washington University's star scientists for her work cooking up complicated nano-capsules - tiny delivery pills for future cancer medicine.
She knows her overbooked schedule has been hard on her family. Her husband, a teacher, is the primary caregiver for their three boys.
She induced labor for two of them on Wednesdays so she could be back at work on Monday. She rescheduled a tenure talk in the first trimester of her first pregnancy so she'd be less hormonal.
The high-octane research world does not tolerate weakness, she says. Neither does she.
As a woman, she says, you can't expect to go far with a weak handshake, a quivering voice or, worst of all, crying. She is wary of the 'women in science' issue because she wants to be known as a scientist, not a woman scientist.
"I don't want favoritism because of my gender," she said.
Job: Chemist, University of Missouri at Columbia
Family: Married, one daughter.
Acid makes red cabbage turn pink. Chromatography reveals red and yellow hiding within a brown M&M. Glue plus borax equals Silly Putty.
These are the equations Sheryl Tucker teaches hundreds of Girl Scouts who pass through her hands-on "Magic of Chemistry" program.
Tucker had mathematicians for parents. She had three sisters, all taught that there were no limits to their careers.
So she wants to make sure that these preteens can also visualize themselves as scientists.
Tucker says the program was seen as a distraction to her research when she went up for tenure, which she got in 2002. But she feels an obligation to get more girls into a pipeline of women scientists.
"They keep talking about the leaky pipeline. If there's no one in the pipeline, it doesn't matter if it leaks," she said.
She sees the leaks among her undergraduate students, who have little interest in becoming busy, stressed professors.
She understands. Tucker is happy at Mizzou but wouldn't want to jump to a place such as Washington University, which she perceives as ultracompetitive.
"I don't want to be in that kind of environment," she said. "And women in general don't."
Job: Physicist, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Family: Married, one daughter
At a physics conference a few years ago, a keynote speaker said that there was only one physics Ph.D. granted nationwide in 2001 to an African-American woman. Nadya Mason, sitting in the audience, realized it was her.
Mason, a physicist trained at Harvard and Stanford, was hired by the U of I to study electrons cooled to a hundredth of a degree above absolute zero.
She says the "double feeling of not belonging" is an extra hardship. She worries about what people really think when she says something wrong.
But being a double minority has also given her the determination to stick it out a bit longer - so she can be a role model for others.
Now, as she seeks tenure, there's something else to consider: her 9-month-old daughter.
"I'm starting a job with a great joy and a great handicap," said Mason.
But she was encouraged by her U of I colleagues, some with families themselves, who seemed genuine when congratulating her.
"At other places, you get a quizzical look, as in, 'Are you sure the timing is right?'" Mason said.
She and her husband, a poet, buy free time with nannies and housekeepers and the occasional cook. And if this mother can't get tenure working 10 hours a day and 5 hours on the weekend, so be it.
"I'm unwilling to sacrifice my family fully for the job," she said. "If they don't understand that, they should stop counting their women."