Changing Roles for Women in Research Universities


Heidi Newberg

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


Invited talk, American Physical Society Meeting, April 2001, Washington, DC, session on Recruiting and Retaining Women


Each of us has had times in our lives when someone has said something to us which causes an internal reaction -- whether for the good or for the bad -- which causes that moment to become locked in our minds. I would like to relate to you some of mine.


I am a senior in college, I am visiting a graduate school, trying to decide whether I would like to go there, or if I want to go to graduate school at all. I am wandering the halls in the physics building, and see a door open. An older gentleman is sitting in his office. I ask if he has time to talk to me, and he waves me in. I don't know what we talked about, but at some point I asked him about something that was really bothering me. I told him I really liked hobbies like music and drawing and crocheting and dance, and I wanted to know if I could still keep up these hobbies and go to graduate school in physics. He told me that learning physics was really, really difficult, and it probably was not worth doing unless you dedicated yourself to it full time. In retirement there would be opportunities for pursuing hobbies. Years later, I discovered that this individual had a Nobel prize.


I knew by this time that an academic career in physics was difficult for women. Why? Because women can only have children when they are young. Academic careers in physics, as this gentleman was reinforcing for me, require an enormous commitment during exactly those years when most other women are getting married and having babies. I was getting the idea that I was supposed to choose between success as a physicist and ever having children and a family. I knew I would never be happy without children. So the question was, was it worth the work of going to graduate school, only to find that this career was incompatible with raising children?


I am a senior in college, I just received a letter from UC Berkeley telling me that I have been accepted into the graduate program in physics. I feel great, since this was where I really wanted to go, and it was quite difficult to get into. One of my (male) classmates finds out about my acceptance and says something like, "You know why you got in to Berkeley? Because you're a woman." He had not been accepted to the graduate schools he was hoping to attend, and he was bitter about it.


At the time that this person said these things to me, I thought to myself, "Maybe it's because my grades are better than yours, or because my advisors had better things to say about my research potential, or because my standardized test scores were higher than yours." But, the idea that maybe I was accepted to Berkeley because of affirmative action stuck with me. After all, the score I received on the GRES test was the lowest percentile I had ever achieved on any exam.


I am in about my third year of graduate school. The center which funds part of my research is being reviewed by an external advisory panel. I am asked to give one of the talks for the panel. I am very excited about my research project, which is aimed at measuring the deceleration parameter of the Universe using Type Ia supernovae. I prepare and deliver the talk, and attend the reception afterwards. I am introduced to one of the panel members, and I am ready to sell him on the center and the importance of pursuing my area of research. He looks at me for a few moments, and finally says, "You know, I've never graduated a woman." And then he proceeded to tell me about all of his graduate students who started graduate school, but didn't finish.


I had just given a talk on my research project, for goodness sakes. I was trying to act like a scientist, look like a scientist, schmooze like a scientist. And all this man could see was that I was a woman. Later, I complained about this to another member of the center. She told me not to be too hard on him, since he was really trying. I began to mentally note the approximate ages of anyone who had trouble seeing past the fact that I was a woman, and discovered that men older than my parents, as hard as they tried, couldn't really get past my gender. It's not that they didn't think women were capable of science, they just didn't know why a woman would want to do it, or how to talk to them if they did. This is of course a generalization -- there are certainly older men who are more forward-thinking and younger men who have difficulty working with women.


Like all NSF-supported science centers, the center I was involved with had an outreach portion. One of the center's programs was called the In Balance program. It was devoted to studying, and ultimately changing, the culture of physics to make it friendlier to women. It wasn't long into this program before the male graduate students complained that the culture wasn't so friendly to them, either. So the program director widened the goals to include cultural change for all young physicists. The first part of the program consisted of brown bag lunches including a guest who was the focus of the discussion group. I remember attending three of these. The first one was a female professor from an ivy-league level university who had a young child and was working insane hours to try to get tenure. She was very upset about her treatment and maybe there was something about marital troubles. I think everyone was in tears by the end of this. The next speaker was a woman who had gone to graduate school in physics, and had left the academic career path to become a mother and a high school teacher, I think. Anyway, she was happy. We graduate students all thought she was an example of failure -- one of those people who is held up as an example of how women do not make it in physics careers. The third person was a male postdoc who had a young baby and a wife who stayed home with the baby. He told us that he was working in the lab until three o'clock in the morning, that it was difficult to get sleep at home since the baby woke so often. He was often tired, but working hard on his career.


At that point, I decided that going to "In Balance" lunches was not compatible with keeping myself in balance, and stopped going. I did not need to hear about any more pain, or meet any more stereotypes in person. To the center's credit, these lunches stopped soon afterwards, and were replaced by retreats and focus on cultural change. For me, the most memorable moment from these was when one (male) postdoctoral researcher suggested that one way to change the culture would be to lock all of the laboratories on weekends and force everyone to go home.


I am a graduate student. A senior woman physicist comes to visit the university. She invites the women graduate students to meet with her. She serves us baloney and American cheese on saltines. She dresses like the men. She later confides in me in the hallway one day that she is fighting a disease, and all women physicists she knows eventually get some horrible disease. She is not sure why that is.


I am not sure whether to worry about this, so I worry anyway, just to be on the safe side.


I am a postdoc. I have just given an invited lecture at a university. Afterwards, in a discussion with one of the university's senior administrators, I ask whether he would recommend to his children that they pursue a career in science. He looks at me for a few seconds, then tells me, "Well, you have a gender problem." I did not intend for this to be a discussion about gender, but about the difficulties that young scientists face at this time. I mentally note his age -- definitely older than my parents. Then I realize that he is not on a visiting committee. He is not in my field. He will never have any control over my career whatsoever. And I allow myself to get mad. Although I cannot remember the details, the conversation does not improve.


One of the senior faculty in the school, a friend of mine, came in the middle of the shouting. It lasted maybe five minutes, but seemed longer. He spent the whole time pacing back and forth and saying nothing. Afterwards, he didn't stop pacing. Eventually I shouted, "What would you have done if all of your life, people had told you that you had a gender problem and that you could not have both a career and an family?" He paced back and forth some more and finally said, "Well, I wouldn't have done it." That man was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. The administrator, it turns out, did later have occasion to influence my career, and fully supported me.


I am a postdoc. I have adopted one daughter, and a year later given birth to another. I am attempting to breast-feed her though I have returned to work, and have purchased a breast pump to be used when I am at work and my daughter is at home with my husband or at daycare. I notice the laboratory property group has excess cubicle dividers and a small desk, and request two dividers and the desk. The property manager asks what I plan to do with them. Boldly, I tell the man that I want to put them in the ladies room that is right by my office so that I can work at the desk while I use the breast pump with a little bit of privacy. This answer causes embarrassment, a facilities inspection of the ladies room in question, and concern over cleaning issues and the safety of plugging in electrical motors and extension cords in bathrooms. A week later, I am informed that they have worked out a deal that I will be permitted to perform this -- eh -- "procedure" (he couldn't say breast pump) in the medical department by appointment. I think to myself that I will use the breast pump by appointment in the medical department if he will make appointments to pee down there. It is, after all, just another bodily function that merits a little privacy and the need to wash up afterwards. I discover that other women have used a slightly larger rest room with a somewhat larger anteroom on another floor for this purpose. Once or twice a day I sit in this bathroom and pump, and the ladies that come in and out stop and talk to me about when they used to breast pump, and how much milk I am producing compared to what they did, and how the baby is doing, etc. Each time I pump takes about a half an hour, or maybe a little more.


The books I have been reading about breastfeeding talk about how many companies have built special rooms for breast pumping, which are private and contain a desk and a sink for washing up in. I have actually traveled with the breast pump and have never seen such a thing in a university, though everyone has always found a large ladies' room or locked a windowless classroom for me to use.


I am now an Associate Scientist. My daughters are one and two years old. Over the past two years I have taken six months of maternity leave. Most of the leave was taken two days per week to make it last longer (my husband and I have each been working three days a week with one day weekends). It is a condition of my employer that all vacation time be used up as part of the guaranteed three months of (otherwise unpaid) leave afforded by the Family Leave Act. I have two children in diapers and in daycare full time. At least one of the children is sick every other week. Before I became a parent the five weeks per year of vacation time I received seemed infinite. Now my leave coupled with my husband's seemed barely adequate to cover the days when the kids were sick. But, my older daughter is almost three and mostly potty-trained. I am starting to build up a cushion of vacation time so that I won't worry about having it when the kids are sick and maybe we will even be able to take a vacation. At a kids' birthday party / barbeque, my younger daughter puts both hands directly on the grill and receives second degree burns on both palms. My nerves are shot. My daughter is out of daycare for a week with bandaged hands and requires almost constant care. My cushion of vacation is gone.


I return to work, but I am beginning to feel that I cannot keep going this way. I ask my supervisor if I can work 80% time. I plan to work four days per week -- whichever four days neither of my kids were sick. My supervisor agreed, but the division head would not sign the papers without talking to me first. The division head thought I might be able to work this out, without losing pay, by working from home part of the time. I tried to explain to him that one- and two-year-olds don't play by themselves very long, and about the problems when they become sick. He told me that he and his wife didn't have any children, and they just worked all of the time. I wasn't sure how to respond to that.


To his credit, the division head signed the papers, and I worked for a year at 80% time. In reality, I'm sure I often worked forty hours per week with this schedule, but I didn't feel guilty about the time I spent with my children. It amounted to about two months of leave, and may easily have saved my sanity and my career.


Now, I want every male physicist who is postdoc level or younger to put your hands over your ears and hum softly until I finish this next section.


Imagine going back to your home institutions and doing the following thing: any time a male student approaches you during recruiting or as an advisee or when you are on a visiting committee, you tell him the following "truths:"


You know, you have a real disadvantage as a man in physics. In my day men did physics and their wives took care of the babies, but not anymore. Now, women have careers. Not only that, they expect their husbands to share housework and child-raising duties. How are you going to be able to do all of those things, and keep your career going?


What kind of woman are you going to meet, anyway? The few women you meet in your classes will be so sought-after that your chances of scoring with them is next to zero. If you fall in love with a career-oriented woman, she will not be happy about your need to relocate to odd places in the country every two or three years before you become established. If she does not wish to work outside the home, you will not be able to support her and the children they always want to have. I cannot tell you how many recent students I have known that have given up on their academic careers because they wanted to give their children a house instead of an apartment. Their wives were tired of scraping by, moving every two years, and supporting their husbands through job search after job search and rejection letter after rejection letter.


It is really much easier for the women. They are certain to meet as many men as they can handle. Many of them marry men who have well-paid jobs, and can survive in low-paying academic jobs and still afford a house and daycare for the kids.


A wife or girlfriend will tie you down, and make it difficult to move across the country every time a better opening presents itself.


You just tell them that -- starting about their senior year in high school. Then we'll see just who develops a confidence problem.


Okay -- if you're sitting next to a man who is humming to himself, please tap him on the shoulder because it's okay to start listening again.


What is the real truth here? I want to point out one very important point about my whole story. No matter how many people bombarded me with words and "truths," about what I could and could not do, nobody stopped me in any physical way that I am aware of. The chains with which these experiences might have bound me did not hold me down. I worked very hard not to let them define me.


I am reminded of the week I spent in third grade where we discussed the popular wisdom that by the time I reached adulthood, machines would have replace so much of the workforce that people would only have to work 20 to 30 hours per week. The biggest industries were going to be entertainment and tourism, since we would all have a high standard of living and loads of free time! In my undergraduate days, the word on the street was that by the time I finished graduate school, there were going to be loads of jobs for physicists, since so many of the professors would be retiring at that time. In fact, the job market was substantially worse.


I recently read through the National Academy of Sciences Symposium on Careers of Women in Science, "Who will do the science of the future?" There are several good articles in the transcripts. One of them is by Richard Tapia, from Rice University, on mentoring women in science. In addition to his discussion of risk adversity in minorities and women, which I agree is a serious problem, he notes that: "Science culture sells an opportunity for them to either have no husband or a late marriage, no children or few and late, live away from the extended family, much stress, little relaxation." I am in fact a counter-example to this. I have a husband. I was married at 25. I have two children, and was the foster parent for three others. Two years ago, I moved back to Albany, New York, partially because I wanted to be closer to my parents and my brothers. My children's most distant grandparent is only a few hour train ride away. As for the stress and relaxation, it is difficult to know what the relevant scale is here. There are plenty of stressed people in every walk of life. I know some for whom the biggest source of stress is that they have wanted to become scientists all of their lives -- and they're not.




In my undergraduate class, only 20% of the students were female. In my graduate school class, only 10%. In my graduate school research group, the only women besides myself were the administrative assistant and some of the undergraduates who cycled through over the years. I don't recall a single female scientist who worked in the field of supernovae at the time. I went from there to work on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey -- an international project to digitally map 10,000 square degrees of the sky and map the large scale structure of the Universe with a million galaxy redshifts. Of the 102 builders of the SDSS, 9 are female (9%). Interestingly, the women are (within the small number statistics) a representative cross section of the collaboration in terms of seniority and occupation (scientist, computer professional, engineer, or manager).


You can imagine my amazement when I arrived at Rensselaer to find that 23% of all of the people with faculty appointments in the physics department were female -- 7 out of 30! If you take me out of the statistics, it's still 22% of the people I see around me. This may not seem like a haven for women to you, but to me this is more women than I have seen in one place since before I went to college! Unlike the SDSS, though, the distribution of women by title is not even. Women comprise a disproportionate fraction of the non-tenure track clinical faculty. They are also over-represented in the administration. I was shocked to realize one day that the Physics Department Chair is female, the Dean of the School of Science is female, and the President of the University is female. In my "line management," the Provost stands out as the token male. The new president of Rensselaer is Dr. Shirley Jackson. She is the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a physicist, and a very strong, black woman.


Given this shift in my working environment, it is reasonable to ask whether it makes any difference to work under women. This question is easy to ask, but very difficult to answer. To get some numbers that are not completely dominated by small number statistics, I tried tabulating the fraction of women in the entering class of the university before and after Shirley Jackson came to the university. In 1996, 226 of 899 Freshmen were women (25.1%). In 1997, 25.1%. In 1998, 22.8% of the Freshmen were women. In the fall of 1999, Dr. Shirley Jackson was inaugurated as the president of Rensselaer, with an entering class of 1323 students, 22.3% of which were women. Okay. Word of her coming was not enough to bring the women in. Last year, in the year 2000, Rensselaer recruited a record 334 of 1304 female students 25.6%. The only thing I can definitively conclude from this is that bringing in a strong woman at the top is not going to change the world overnight. But in the long run I think it might.


At the top levels of Rensselaer, there are no administrators who find it uncomfortable to work for a woman. No one has ever suggested to me that I have an odd career, or that I might have any sort of gender difficulties. Actually, one person has suggested to me that I might do better at Rensselaer as a woman, since he felt our new president favors women. If that is true, it is fine with me. I am long past worrying about whether I got any position because I am a woman. I am past it because I now understand that almost everyone who gets any position gets it for reasons which are not completely objective. Many people get positions because they know someone, or because they happened to be standing at exactly the right place at the right time, or because the person who is hiring them sees something in them that reminds them of themselves when they were young. I know that I have been rejected from positions for reasons which have nothing to do with whether or not I am a good scientist. Why should I worry if am accepted from the stack of qualified applicants because this time, someone would rather give the opportunity to a woman?


During the past year, I have had the privilege of serving as the Chair of the Physics Department Graduate Admissions Committee at Rensselaer. I want to share with you some of the things I have read in letters of recommendation for women applying to our program this year, along with my thoughts as I read them. (I had to change a few words in some of them to hide the identities of the applicants.)


"First, the important thing needing emphasis is that she is the most diligent of all my students and has done research excellently based on her sound theory background though she is a girl."


This is an example of an advisor who cannot see past the gender of his graduate students.


"Miss X often mentioned that in order to be a true physics worker, one needs to cast aside some enjoyment and cultivate intensive interest and strong belief in physics. Her passion for physics distinguished her from her classmates and has won her appreciation from me."


This is an example of an advisor who thinks that physics is difficult and that students should work hard, regardless of whether or not they are enjoying themselves. Although I agree that working hard does help to bring about a successful career, the idea that someone should work hard and not enjoy themselves does not. The work that one does in physics should be a work of joy. Otherwise, it truly is not worth doing. The idea that someone should endure pain now in hopes that in the future they should have power and comfort only brings to my mind only visions of fraternity hazing and the cycle of child abuse. I do not know whether it is environmental or genetic, but women do not socialize in the same hierarchical way.


"This girl is honest and modest. Being accommodating, she gets along well with her classmates. She is also a girl with mercy and a kind heart. When she was a Junior, she volunteered to serve as a blood donor."


"She gets along well with almost all the students and teachers. This is due to her amicability and nice-heartedness. She is ready to help others."


I have also been surprised by how many women have recommendation letters which describe them as "beautiful." These statements are nice, but do not bring to mind a physics researcher so much as a wife, daughter, or best friend.


"I know her from an outstanding young man, her husband, Dr. X, who is an Associate Professor in the Physics Department now. As far as I know, she and her husband have done a lot of interesting work in terahertz optics."


Nowhere in the rest of the application was her marital status ever mentioned. It is my opinion that unless there is a reason for us to know about the husband (for instance, the applicant would like us to look for a position for her husband as well), his existence is irrelevant. None of the letters for male students tell us about his wife's professional requirements, whether or not she is an asset to his career, whether she has any geographical preference we might like to know about, or whether she has any particular needs which might influence the likelihood that he would move to the area. We just look at the application and ask ourselves whether we would want this student in the program.

The idea of a recommendation letter is to distinguish the work of the applicant. If her collaborator had not been her husband, could the person who wrote this letter of recommendation come up with anything illuminating to tell us about her individual abilities?


Now I must tell you some bad news. Although I was successful in admitting about the right number of graduate students this past year, and their distribution in ethnicity and physics specialty is about what we expected (not representative, but as expected), of the 14 students who will enter graduate school in physics at Rensselaer in 2001, not a single one is female! I was somewhat disappointed by this. Last year we had three out of 17. When I look at the numbers, I see that 12 out of 80 of our applicants are women. Only 4 out of 40 of those we admitted to the program were women. All things being equal, there should have been 6. Okay, I told myself. These are small number statistics, and maybe not all things were equal. Then I looked at the waiting list. We put people on the waiting list if we thought they were qualified to enter the program, but we just couldn't accept them because we would have too many students. Of the 11 students on the waiting list, 3 were female.


Although these small number statistics do not prove anything, I am worried that even putting a woman in charge of admissions, even if that woman is me, doesn't guarantee that women will receive equal consideration with men. Worse, we could be seeing the effects of real collateral damage sustained by women as they go through the system. If women do not ask questions, their misconceptions are never straightened out. If their energies are sapped by their own insecurities and a system that seems unfriendly, they cannot be as receptive to learning the material. If women are not given tasks with the assumption that they are capable, no one might ever find out that they are.

Does it make a difference to the recruiting and retention of women to have women in positions of authority? Well, it doesn't change the world overnight. But I know that the coming of a woman president to Rensselaer honestly made me more comfortable taking a position in this historically male-dominated institution. I hope that in our institution, the glass ceiling is dissolving, and that over time our female students will begin to feel more self-confident and open.


Before I close, I would like to add a brief comment. When I was a girl my father told me that the marital system where the husband works outside the home and brings in money and the wife takes care of the house and has primary responsibility for the kids was a good system. It was not the only system, however. In many ways, it would have been easier for me to have followed that path. But I would not have been following the path that I wanted to follow. The system we have in place to educate new physicists and place them on career paths is a system which has been successful in creating physicists. I do not believe it is the only system, either. Paving paths for young physicists which match the paths of those who have come before them works only to the extent that the young physicists are like the ones before them, and that the world that they live in and opportunities afforded them are similar to those of previous generations.