Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,
Amazingly, my grandma Lily graduated with a degree in chemistry more than 100 years ago, from the University of Cape Town. Upon graduation she married my grandpa and said that the only chemistry she did after that was in the kitchen. Her daughter, my aunt Annette also graduated with a chemistry degree. She wanted to enroll for a PhD after, but she was married and therefore, was not allowed to do so. Aunt Annette became a high school chemistry teacher. Following tradition, I graduated with a degree in chemistry, and nothing was closed to me as a next step (even though, I too was married). That real progress is what I remember in the face of outstanding opportunities, but also continuing challenges for women in science.
I have remembered my encouraging family history this Nobel season, when only one out of twelve awardees was a woman. In response, the Nobel committee said they did not intend to put in quotas to honor women. Part of the reason, explained Mr. Goran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is because “it would be, we fear, considered that those laureates got the prize because they are women, not because they are the best”. Unfortunately, Mr. Hansson, all women, even Nobel laureates awarded without ‘quotas’, may be treated as though they have been given the accolade because of their gender. Indeed, the Nobel Committee should pay particular attention that implicit gender bias is not included in Prize selection.
And yesterday, I remembered my encouraging family history when US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reported that the Court had changed practices to require only one judge speak at a time, because a study had found that women justices were interrupted far more than male counterparts. Justice Sotomayor said it is a dynamic existing not only on the court but in society as well, “Most of the time women say things and they are not heard in the same way as men who might say the identical thing”. Some of you may identify with this issue.
So how are we doing in our College of Science, around gender equity? Last year Associate Dean Randall Hughes ran an equity survey amongst our community. We have reported some of the results, but Dr. Hughes is further assessing the rich data collected, to ensure we are acting strategically to promote equity in our College. The data suggest sizable gender differences for undergraduate students that are less so for graduate students, and for staff. Women faculty responded with a bimodal distribution, for example, many feel ‘valued’, but a significant percentage do not, relative to men. We do not know from the survey why undergraduate women perceive the climate differently than men, or why some women faculty feel respected and others do not.
Our faculty members include brilliant women across every sphere of Science and at every level. But we need to worry why women are so poorly represented in many departments. For example, in the tenure stream, our Physics and Mathematics department faculty run below 15% women, and in Chemistry only 25%. These numbers are representative of most universities indicating the attrition of talented women in these areas, at stages of training before they would enter academia. The underlying reasons are complex but have a lot to do with expectations from even before birth, early childhood education, k-12 schooling, societal stereotyping, lack of access to affordable childcare, and rigid academic tracks. Our College can’t fix everything, but we can fix academic landscapes – we think that women faculty percentages will increase after reworking archaic practices, by hiring right out of the PhD, by hiring cohorts, promoting collaborative research and devising tenure assessments that acknowledge teamwork. All of course, within a culture of respect, where everyone listens carefully to one another, and respects the contributions of every College member.
For today, let’s leave with the positive view that would have amazed Grandma Lily, and mix it up with understanding that in our College of Science, we need to pay attention to gender equity. We need to ensure that our undergraduate women know they are valued, and one way we are doing this is through a wonderful new Program, the Advancing Women in Science Scholarship Fund that is supported by COS faculty/staff, parents, alumni, and friends. We need to ensure that contributions made by women in our College and at Northeastern University are valued without qualification or bias, and that optimal support is available, so someday we don’t have to have this conversation at all.
Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science