Will Obama Help Women In Science?

Women in science are hoping Obama does more to support their female colleagues than his predecessor did.

Just because "smart is the new cool," reports Natalie Angier in yesterday's Times, doesn't mean the lab is an easy place for the ovary-having set. While they've made strides in many areas, like biology, women remain drastically underrepresented in fields like physics, where they make up only 6 percent of full professors. Science also seems to impact women's personal lives more starkly than men's. 70 percent of male tenured science profs are married with kids, compared to only 44 percent of female ones. Nearly 40 percent of female scientists in one study said they had had fewer kids than they wanted, while only 20 percent of men felt this way. Study author Mary Ann Mason says the message here is, "men can have it all, but women can’t."

Girls do just as well as boys in high school math, and may actually be more likely to use computers at home, so there's no reason to think our fluffy little brains are holding us back. Rather, the culture of science — which often demands that people spend their 20s and 30s in low-paying but high-pressure positions, and then madly chase tenure well into their forties — sucks for women (and men too), especially if they want to have families. Mason says Obama could relieve some of the pain by allocating additional family leave to recipients of federal grants, since many scientists fall into this group.

Women in science are also hoping Obama will appoint a woman to his Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. "People say, oh, we shouldn’t have quotas, but diversity is a form of excellence, and there are plenty of outstanding women out there," says Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist and member of the Rosalind Franklin society, which works to support and recognize women in science (that's Franklin above). "You don’t have to lower your standards in the slightest," she continues, "you just have to pay attention." As someone whose sense that women can be smart, analytical, and do anything they want was shaped by a female scientist (hi Mom!), I have to agree.

In ‘Geek Chic’ and Obama, New Hope for Lifting Women in Science
[NY Times]