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Friday, July 01, 2005 | When Marye Ann Fox was first hired in 1976 as assistant professor of organic chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, the decision didn’t sit well with one male professor. Upon hearing the news that a woman professor would be hired, he quipped, “over my dead body.”
He died two weeks later.
Fox was not deterred. She remained at the university for 22 years, where she eventually advanced to vice president for research in chemistry. Fox has since taught at universities across the United States and abroad. She is now the chancellor of the University of California, San Diego.
In January, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers sparked a national debate when he suggested that women are underrepresented in sciences and engineering due to a lack of “intrinsic aptitude.” He announced months later that the university would spend $50 million to recruit more women and minority faculty.
That same week, four professors at the University of California, Davis released a study that showed that the University of California system continues to lag in hiring women faculty members, despite increases in general hiring and in the number of women in the Ph.D. applicant pool.
Although more women than men are graduating from college nationwide, men continue to dominate science and engineering. Among tenured faculty in science and engineering at UCSD, 337 are men and 41 are women. At San Diego State University, 154 men and 38 women comprise the tenured science and engineering faculty.
Vicky Fabry, a professor of biological oceanography at California State University San Marcos, said that within marine sciences, there are currently more women getting appointments and tenure than in the past.
“They’re still not the majority,” she said. “You see more women at meetings now, and that’s good, so there have been advancements made. But we still have a ways to go.”
And it may take more than just pumping money into the recruitment pool and hiring efforts. Several local women science professors agree that greater attention needs to be given to cultivating women’s interest in science before they even set foot on a college campus.
“By the time students come to college, they have already decided a lot of things,” said Lisa Baird, department chair of biology at the University of San Diego.
She would like to see current women science professors (herself included) interact more with elementary and junior high school girls not only to open their minds to science, but to show them that becoming a scientist is an obtainable job option.
“It’s not that they don’t have the aptitude, they don’t see it as a career path for them,” stated Jeanne Ferrante, professor and associate dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD.
Ferrante, whose father fostered her curiosity in science at an early age, thought she wanted to be a high school chemistry teacher. However, as an undergraduate, she got hooked on math, thanks in part to an encouraging professor – who also happened to be a woman.
“We lose students at the high school level … they don’t know about engineering or what their careers could be. We need to do a better job of informing people, especially parents, that there are opportunities in computer science and engineering,” Ferrante said.
Outreach efforts – whether it’s through classroom visits or programs held outside of school – enable young girls to explore scientific processes by participating in hands-on activities and engaging in discussion with professional women scientists.
Creating a piece of jewelry with flashing LED lights and making ice cream from liquid nitrogen could provide the inspiration for tomorrow’s scientists.
“Students need to see women that are successful in their careers. Otherwise, without a successful model, it’s hard to see that that could be a career for you,” Fabry said.
One local program holds overnight sleepovers at various science-friendly locations throughout San Diego, such as the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Birch Aquarium and Mission Trails Regional Park. Here, young girls can interact with professional women scientists and learn about a wide range of future career possibilities, from animal conservation to oceanography to robotics.
“We try to introduce them to as many places and types of science as possible. We use the widest definition of science that we can,” said Patricia Winter, co-founder of BE WiSE, or Better Education for Women in Science and Engineering.
And then there’s the problem on the other end of the equation: retaining female professors once they’ve gotten the job.
Life as a female professor can be pretty lonely, said Karen May Newman, associate professor and department chair of mechanical engineering at SDSU.
“My closest confidant is the secretary. While it’s nice, she can’t always relate to my situation,” said Newman, one of three tenured female faculty members in engineering. “It’s very isolated when you don’t have someone to talk to.”
In her opinion, the retention issue at universities is largely related to these feelings of isolation. “Faculty members are encouraged to be isolated, to work independently. They’re not encouraged to be a team,” she said.
Newman speaks highly of her male colleagues, but acknowledges that they don’t always know how to reach out to females the same way as they do with their male peers, especially when it comes to sharing information about getting tenure and special assignments.
She participates in an on-campus group called “Just Because” for female faculty across all departments, many in high-up positions, to get together “just because” they’re women.
“It’s very important to find a faculty mentor, to find someone who truly has your best interest at heart … I had to go outside of engineering to find my mentor,” Newman said.
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