Women in Science 2005-2006:
The Debate (on under-representation) that Won't go Away;
Historical roots, social dynamics, policy ramifications.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Pnina G. Abir-Am



(Clockwise from left: Lawrence Summers/ President, Harvard, 2001-06; Susan Hockfield/ President-MIT, 2004-; Nancy Hopkins/ Molecular Biologist, MIT, 1973-; John Hennessy/ President, Stanford, 1999-; Shirley Tilghman/ President, Princeton, 2001-)



Project goals:

This project examines three dimensions (A-C) of the public debate on women's under-representation in science that has been going on in response to statements made by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers on January 14, 2005, at a conference on diversity in the workforce. Those statements claimed, among other related arguments, that women's innate limitations for high achievement in science is a hypothesis that ranks higher in its explanatory power than the reality of gender discrimination. (See Summers 2005 in Bibliography, below)

  1. Historical background of the public debate (and the statements that triggered it):
  2. This project examines the handling of the "women in science" issue at several institutions, including those whose presidents shaped the early phase of the debate, while criticizing Summers's comments. (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford) It will examine the record of these institutions in the preceding two decades, (1985-2005) especially since the early 1990s, when the under-representation of women in science was identified as a national priority, in the aftermath of an international, NATO sponsored, institute for advanced studies in science policy, held at Il Ciocco, Italy in November 1989. (Abir-Am 1990 in EASST Newsletter, www.easst.org; idem, 1992) During that period, original research on women in science has greatly intensified. For example, in 1987 the History of Science Society established a special prize for outstanding research in both book and essay form on the subject of women in science. (HSS-WS awardees) Significant contributions have since come not only from historians and sociologists of women in science, technology, and medicine, but also from cultural, gender, or policy theorists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and economists. (See below, selected bibliographic items to be essay reviewed with an eye for policy implications)

    Since the public debate unfolded as if the above mentioned awqard winning research conducted over two decades did not exist, instead of making progress in both public discourse and policy implementation, considerable effort was wasted on "reinventing the wheel." Key findings of prior extensive research on women in science were rediscovered, especially those pertaining to the role and extent of persisting (albeit increasingly more subtle) gender discrimination; strategies for combining career and family life; women's historical record for both scientific aptitude and hard work, among other items. (For various public responses see http://www.anitaborg.org; http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu)

    A key objective of this project is to understand the impediments that prevented the research on women in science that accumulated in the last two decades from penetrating the public sphere, so as to reach decision makers, such as university presidents among other professional leaders who made pronouncements in the course of this debate; the media; science organizations; women's organizations. Pertinent questions include:

    1. What is the most pertinent research on women in science?
    2. What are its policy implications?
    3. How can such research be best disseminated? Has the new generation been taught the findings of original research on women in science at both undergraduate and graduate levels? Which disciplines and departments have been leaders in responsive curriculum, and outreach activities?
    4. Who was entrusted with teaching on "women in science"?
    5. What has been the reception and impact of scholarship on women in science?
    6. How have leading figures in academia, government, and industry accounted for the history of the subject matter on "women in science", as well as the status quo of gender in/equality at their institutions, in the two decades prior to 2005?

  3. Social and professional dynamics of the debate:
  4. The project investigates who were the major players in the 2005 public debate, as well as the contributions they made to illuminating the subject matter of women in science, before and during the debate or throughout all calendar 2005?

  5. Policy ramifications of the 2005 public debate:
  6. The project examines new policy initiatives undertaken immediately prior as well as in response to the public debate by leading universities, governmental agencies, and professional organizations.



A major public debate on the issue of women's under-representation in science has been going on since January 14, 2005, in response to statements made by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers at a conference on diversity in the workforce, organized by the National Bureau for Economic Research. (hereafter NBER; http://www.nber.org) Summers argued that a hypothesis on women's innate limitations for high achievement in science ranks higher in its explanatory power (of women's under-representation in science) than a hypothesis on gender discrimination. His comments caused Nancy Hopkins, a professor of molecular genetics at MIT, to walk out. Almost a month later, three scientist university presidents, John Hennessy of Stanford, Susan Hockfield of MIT, and Shirley Tilghman of Princeton published a joint statement castigating Summers for his remarks. (http://web.mit.edu/president)

The mass media, especially The Boston Globe, major newspapers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the BBC, as well as students' outlets such as The Harvard Crimson, (http://www.thecrimson.com) among others, covered the story on an almost daily basis, to the effect that by April the debate became known as the debate "that won't go away." Eventually, the public debate came to include not only direct "responses" to Summers' statements from leading women activists and professional organizations, (ASA; AWIS; AAAS) opinion pages, columns, and letters to the editor in newspapers and magazines; (see listings on http://www.anitaborg.org; http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu, but also discussions in academic forums (http://www.HSSonline.org; http://www.radcliffe.edu, http://www.stanford.edu/group/IRWG), "task forces", (http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/05/16-wtaskforce_release.html; http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/0516_womensci.html) even "duelling" debates. (http://www.edge.org check Spelke vs Pinker from Wiseli website)

The ongoing resonance of this debate suggests that "women in science" is a charged metaphor, capturing tension at the intersection of science - the cutting edge of culture in the second half of the 20st Century, and gender - the cutting edge of social change ever since the rise of the women's movement in the 1970s. The very existence of such an ongoing public debate provides an excellent opportunity for educating decision makers so as to ensure that their policies are informed by pertinent scholarship on women in science, society and gender, science and society. Indeed, this particular NSF-SGER project has been triggered by the absence of science studies scholars, most notably historians and sociologists of women in science.


Guiding hypotheses:

  1. Persisting tokenism: Ongoing marginalization of women scholars and women's topics, reflect partial, often tokenist institutonalization, dispersion, and isolation within the university structure. Female access to positions of power remains limited due to lack of (male) patronage. Structural inertia in academic recruitment and retainion has enabled gender bias to persist among chairmen of departments and search committees. (Harvard Gazette, Reports of the Task Forces, 2005) Search committees perceive the same CV as of lesser value, if they know the gender identity of the candidate to be female. (ADVANCE Meeting, Discussion, 05-19-2005)
  2. Federal government agencies' reluctance to address gender bias in universities, despite the fact that scholarship pointed to them as more discriminatory than either industry or government. Lacking European style leverage, (academic institutions there are expected to match and stabilize awardees who win national competitions, thus easing the recruitment of women) while also fostering a low key approach to media coverage, the policy agencies' cautious outlook has further limited the potential impact of well intended initiatives. Programs for ensuring a steady supply of high quality publications on women in science are still missing, while overhead continues to flow to institutions with poor record on gender equality.
  3. A decade of neglect (1995-2005) in prioritizing the issue of women in science? Public interest in the issue of women in science peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, (Abir-Am 1992) but seems to have since declined for various economic, political, and cultural reasons. (e.g. the dot com boom of the late 1990s; the "Science Wars"; the rise of identity politics; the post-9-11 shift in national priorities) Is this neglect a matter of perception? (Adam et al 2004)
  4. Poor media coverage of the topic of "women in science" in both the science and mass media, due to the media's personalized sensationalism, as well as lack of education for science journalists, and the mostly male scientists who inform them on gender and women in science, For example, considerable media coverage in the spring of 2003 of "DNA at 50" repeated platitudes on men discoverers even though women played equally crucial roles.
  5. Unclear role of the public intellectual in American society, especially of both women and scientists; the prevalence of careerism, and the ethos of excessive individualism has minimized the availability of public voices as spokespersons and leaders for gender equality. This weakness was further coupled with tensions between disciplinary reputations and interdisciplinary gender studies missions, between theoreticians and others; between gender equality and identity politics on race, ethnicity, post-colonialism, and cultural backlash.

    The potential impact of this project stems from its recoupling scholarship that has amply demonstrated the ongoing operation of pervasive gender bias in many scientific fields, with public debate, as well as actual policy implementation. The project will trigger spinoff efforts, such as discipline refined studies of obstacles to accepting women's scholarship as part of mainstream disciplinary agendas in all fields.






Appendix: Past Winners of The Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize, given by the History of Science Society



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