The Sexes and the Sciences

Why aren’t women rushing to the labs as we thought they would?

When the number of women enrolling and graduating from physical science and engineering programs was steadily increasing in the 1980s and ’90s, it was not unreasonable to expect that those numbers would keep increasing. Or at least that they would maintain an upward track until men and women were more or less equally represented in the various fields of science. But then something unexpected happened.

The percentage of women in science declined a bit in 2003 in Canada and other western countries, and it turned out to be more than just a hiccup or a statistical anomaly. Rather, it was the beginning of a decline that continues today. What is going on? Why does women’s involvement in science appear to be regressing?

Author and engineering professor Monique Frize raises a startling proposition in The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering. It is, she notes, a myth that women’s advancement in education and societal roles is a progression that is irreversible. She is right. Throughout recorded history, women have made considerable gains in gender parity with men, only to have those gains abruptly terminated or to see them slowly dissipate through societal change.

As remarkable as it seems, women and men in Europe enjoyed relatively equal access to education in the 7th and 8th centuries because both had access to monasteries, the educational hotbeds of that time. As Frize notes, France alone had more than 50 double monasteries, housing both monks and nuns. However, the domination of Charlemagne, who wanted education only for men, as well as other upheavals, radically reduced the number of such monasteries—to just five in the case of France.

Women’s education in Europe saw another renaissance during the 12th and 13th centuries. Women educated at convents had considerable clout in society. Some wrote medical texts and performed surgery; others were ordained as deaconesses and bishops by the Catholic church and heard confession. Islamic women of the time had no limits on their access to education (except, perhaps, lack of money, but that was no different from European women), and women were actively involved in both funding and teaching at madrassas and mosques.

In Europe, the advancement and education of women ended in the 13th century, with the growth of universities such as those at Oxford and Paris, which restricted access to men only. The lot of European women took a further turn for the worse in the 14th century, as the intensifying panic over witchcraft meant many women became scapegoats for everything from the plague pandemic to local crop failures. Women who wanted to participate in natural philosophy, as science was called at the time, continued to do so into the 16th and 17th centuries, but only if they had a father, brother, husband or other family member to see to their education, provide them with telescopes and laboratories, and promote their work (sometimes as their own) to a growing number of scientific societies.

It is a small irony that, initially, science and mathematics were considered vulgar and beneath the purview of learned men. The most innovative girls’ schools of the 16th and 17th centuries, notes Frize, were typically run by women who valued an education that would allow, as one of these school administrators put it, “women to earn their own living, manage their own affairs, and defend their own homes.” The curriculum of such schools often included grammar, rhetoric, logic and languages, as well as science and mathematics. That is one of the reasons why women such as Nichole-Reine Lepaute of France and Caroline Herschel of Hanover and England were able to make significant contributions to astronomy during this period.

It was not until educational reform in Europe in the 18th century that science and mathematics became the sole purview of men and off limits to women. This shift was a product of the growing belief, espoused by influential philosophers such as Rousseau, Hume, Kant and Goethe, that girls and boys required completely different kinds of educations. Science was assigned masculine values, Nature was given feminine characteristics, and thus Nature was to be enslaved, subdued and conquered. Girls were deemed to require only the kind of education that was suitable to the private sphere of home and husband, ensuring they were good chatelaines and wives. Too much education was against their feminine “nature” and would lead to mental impairment and damage their reproductive organs.

So, here we are in 2010, and it does, indeed, seem like a preposterous idea to imagine that the daughters or great-granddaughters of women who are fully engaged today in a modern and accommodating society such as Canada’s might some day be relegated once again to domestic life and denied an education. But it should be remembered that it is not all that long ago that women in the modern western world gained access to high education and were allowed to participate in the public sphere.

Frize tells us something about the discrimination she faced as a student of engineering in the 1960s and later as a young academic, and she has a great deal to say about the subtle disincentives built into our educational system that have put so many young women off careers in science and engineering. The Bold and the Brave is a distillation of Frize’s personal experiences as the often lone woman in engineering classes or at conferences, and the feeling that she was tilting at windmills in her effort to make engineering a friendlier place for women. And she has been at it for a long time.

I can relate to her evidence, though my own case is a little different than most. By the time I developed a desire to understand the puzzles of quantum physics science beyond what I could read in popular science books, I had already enjoyed a rollicking good career as a journalist. I suffered a certain degree of cultural whiplash when I went from being a news editor for CBC Radio and a talking head for Newsworld in 1996 to the anonymity of being an undergraduate physics student. It was tough, in part because I’d never taken a single physics course before, and as expected I did not fit with the other students, most of whom had entered physics right out of high school. What I did not expect was to collide awkwardly with the teaching and learning approach I encountered in my studies. I had not had a single woman professor, lecturer or lab instructor from the time I started physics until I graduated with a master’s degree, and I had no idea how women handled the demands of a physics career. Writing books about science held a lot more appeal for me than actually doing science, so I became one of those women contributing to the decline in women in physical sciences and engineering. I became part of the worrisome trend of women leaving science.

Frize is a well-known figure in Canadian engineering education, with postings at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. She was appointed the first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council chair for Women in Engineering at the University of New Brunswick in 1989. Her objective in this book is to “render women more visible,” given that writers of the history of science so often ignore or trivialize the contributions of women. While she succeeds in showing how active women were in science in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how many books they wrote to make science accessible to other women, her main concern is with the cyclical nature of women’s access to science and mathematics: “There has not been a constant march toward equality,” she observes, “and there is clear evidence that women’s full and equal participation in society is neither an automatic result of the simple passage of time nor in any way guaranteed. An acquaintance with women’s history is the first step toward understanding and possibly developing ways to maintain gains and prevent future regresses.”

As successful as she is in highlighting many relevant experiences of women in history, she gets bogged down in the last third of the book when she labours over the many and varied statistics of modern university science programs, and the efforts to encourage female students to study science. It is quite difficult to obtain up-to-date data from universities, so that much of what Frize is analyzing is already out of date. And that makes it difficult for her to arrive at a definitive conclusion about why women’s participation in engineering and physical sciences is declining, even while that decline is mirrored almost exactly by an increase in women in health-related sciences.

Frize’s best explanation is that “there has been a resurgence of conservative values in society, which has been accompanied and reinforced by reductions in grants to women’s organizations, the continuing display of gender stereotypes in the media, and a new preoccupation with the drop-out rates of boys in high schools.”

I did not find this to be a very satisfying conclusion, so I contacted another woman who has spent a great many years promoting physical sciences and mathematics as careers for women. Margaret-Ann Armour, an associate dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, helped found Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST) in Canada 30 years ago. She is a retired chemistry professor who has been given the task of figuring out how to increase diversity in the science faculty. “Do you know what the big question we’re dealing with right now is?” she asked. “When to have kids.”

The problem, said Armour, is that people are spending longer as post-doctoral fellows than they used to, which means it is taking longer to land a tenure-track position: “Say you’re a woman starting university right out of high school. You finish an undergraduate degree at 22, and then take about five years for a PhD. Then there’s another three years as a post-doc. Now you’re 30 years old, with another five years before getting tenure. You’re 35 years old and the biological clock is ticking.”

The conclusion, she said, is that it is less damaging to a woman’s prospects in academia if she has her children during graduate studies. Committees hiring for faculty positions look closely at the number of papers that post-docs and tenure-track professors have published and the innovative research they are doing. That means taking maternity leave while a post-doc or on tenure track is more damaging to career prospects than taking time out during graduate studies.

It would help, said Armour, if both men and women had better access to parental leave, thus levelling the playing field a bit. But she considers the bigger issue to be the fact that the culture of science has not really changed much in the past 50 years.

“It’s an enterprise designed by men, a particular group of men dedicated to learning and using a very effective way of getting information and facts that doesn’t have a lot to do with context. And women tend to want to have context.”

It is about the issue of some disciplines in science being a poor fit for many women. But, said Armour, women now make up about 30 percent of the faculty in areas such as bio-sciences. That is considered to be the critical mass needed to bring about substantial and lasting change that can make a science department more women-friendly.

That is important, said Armour, because it turns out that women who work in environments that are unfriendly to women are voting with their feet.

“There is a change I’m seeing that is quite dramatic. Women are making intentional decisions not to become a manager because they don’t want that lifestyle. The way a workplace is structured and what is expected of people, well, women are saying, ‘I don’t want that.’ A larger proportion of women than men are leaving large engineering companies, saying they’ve had enough of that culture. And they are setting up their own consulting companies.”

It is not that women are giving up on science, or that they are being denied opportunities that were available to them prior to 2003. Rather, women have been shifting to life and health-related sciences that are more in keeping with feminine values, and are less likely to see the appeal of physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering. They are leaving the traditional, male-dominated structures and institutions to seek out or create working environments that are more in keeping with what women (and some men) value.

What that means is that fewer women are willing to expend the time and effort required to fit into academic and research environments where masculine characteristics are valued more highly than feminine ones.

Frize makes many of these same points in the last third of The Bold and the Brave. In her epilogue she is almost wistful in her hope that some day, people will integrate and value both feminine and masculine characteristics in engineering: “Considering that feminine characteristics have not been considered in a positive light for many centuries, it will take some time for the majority of scientists and engineers, including many of the women, to understand their value and to see how they can add complementary and enriching approaches to such work.”

She concludes: “If the leaders of the profession begin to see how diversity can benefit engineering, and if they have respect for differences, then women will finally take their rightful place in the ranks of the profession. The profession will be richer for it.”

That is not an unreasonable expectation.