Science Needs Women Scientists

Their tendency to be good at making connections is a critical skill in today's fragmented fields

By Ling Pan

Why is there a lack of women pursuing tenure science careers? Lawrence Summers raises the point that women may be innately disadvantaged, that the majority of women lack the desire to or are socially disadvantaged to achieve or maintain high-octane leadership positions. While some of his claims resonate with disturbing truth and are loosely supported by studies that show definite differences between the way men and women think, the question remains, why do we care if science is disproportionate by gender?

Simple: Science may be suffering because of a lack of women scientists. To employ generalizations, women are better at multitasking and making connections across disciplines, while men are better at focusing on one discipline. Whether this is a phenomenon that occurs from societal preening or from biological wiring, science can benefit from more cross-disciplinary attitudes. From my own experience in the lab, research at present is extremely self-absorbant and sequestered.


  What needs to happen, especially with increasingly limited resources for government-funded research and the enormous science illiteracy in the U.S., is to reconnect the sciences. I believe that women would greatly contribute to accelerating this shift. If the sciences were made more unified and accessible to the general public, then perhaps science would attract not only more women but also a more diverse population of both men and women.

Certainly there is no easy solution to increasing the number of women leaders in science. Using quotas or similar programs could result in women losing credibility as being the equals of men in the same position.

However, that raises other questions: Should women leaders be replicas of men leaders? Is it necessary for the husband of a female professor to be a stay-at-home dad? In the end, social barriers stem from a remaining, malleable nuclear family image of caretaker and homemaker parents. In most families today, each parent works full time, but often only one -- most times the mother -- takes on the task of balancing career and family.


  Another social barrier is inadvertent discrimination against women attaining leadership positions. Superficially, women have the same opportunities as men to rise to the top, but the low number of women who fulfill those opportunities accounts for the expectation that men will be the leaders and authoritative figures. Thus, in a dangerously circular phenomenon, the social and familial barriers preventing women from reaching the top foster continued expectations that women will likely not achieve those positions.

In the end, there will be no sweeping panacea to the gender divide in the sciences. Hopefully Summers' comments will not discourage young women from the sciences, but instead challenge them to work at changing societal standards and expectations.

Pan was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search

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