Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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NU’s science gender gap narrowing, profs say

Many women were told growing up that boys were better at science than girls.

Such gender barriers have traditionally blocked women’s path in science. But at Northwestern women have made significant strides in reversing this mentality, although they remain underrepresented.

While no scientists will serve as presenters at Saturday’s annual Women in Leadership Conference, their presence on campus is growing ever stronger, said Lydia Villa-Komaroff, NU’s vice president for research.

Next week members of NU’s biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology department will examine a unit report aimed to recruit more junior faculty and retain senior lecturers, said Lecturer Holly Falk-Krzesinski.

“Anybody with half a brain would say you have too few women within the department,” Falk-Krzesinski said. “We need to mentor the junior faculty to help with retention efforts.”

Several female scientists have created support systems to encourage more women in the field, said Villa-Komaroff, a former professor of neurobiology who cloned insulin using modified DNA.

“It’s become very important to me to make it easier for other women and minority students to make their way into the sciences,” Villa-Komaroff said. “The traditions of some of the sciences have not been encouraging for women.”

Villa-Komaroff was the third Mexican-American woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in science. In 1973, she established the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science to recruit minorities in the sciences.

Villa-Komaroff, the oldest of six children, said her interest in the natural world runs in her blood. Both her mother and grandmother were botanists and her uncle worked as a chemist.

“It didn’t occur to me that I was doing something unusual,” Villa-Komaroff said.

She said she pursued molecular and cellular biology despite being told by a male chemistry professor that “women don’t belong in chemistry.”

More women will choose to study science only when elementary and high school teachers stop discouraging them, physics Prof. Vicky Kalogera said.

“It gives a twisted point of view if you’re a woman and you look around you and all of your teachers are men in science and engineering,” Kalogera said.

When female role models and mentors are absent from the scientific community, female graduate students may be less likely to pursue post-doctorate work, Villa-Komaroff said.

“If you’re not going to hire us, why are you training us?” Villa-Komaroff said, echoing the concern of female doctorate students.

Administrators have urged departments to consider women and minorities among applicant pools, but hiring decisions can be initiated only by the departments, said John Margolis, associate provost for faculty affairs.

While many departments have made “significant progress” to diversify the faculty, further efforts are warranted in several areas, he said.

Still, NU is one of 17 schools that employs at least four female faculty in physics departments.

Although the university’s numbers are strong, a study by the American Institute of Physics shows women’s participation in physics decreasing at each rung on the academic ladder.

“Women are disappearing from the pipeline,” said Meg Urry, the first female physics professor to be granted tenure at Yale University.

Urry, who heads the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, said gender discrimination limits women’s achievement.

“If (departments) don’t wake up and notice, this situation will stagnate,” Urry said. “Women are uniformly unhappy at the lack of visibility and the lack of voice that they have in their institutions. Young people are looking at these women and choosing to go elsewhere.”

Faculty are concerned about the underrepresentation of women in physics departments across the nation, said Prof. Tom Lubensky, head of the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There are active bidding wars to attract those women who have become the most visible,” Lubensky said.

Only two women are on the 35-member physics faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, and Washington University’s physics department is all male. At NU, five out of the physics department’s 32 faculty members are women, more than most peer institutions.

“It might not be a productive thing to counter or compensate for a deficiency that seems to have rectified itself,” said neurobiology Prof. Jon Levine, head of NU’s biology program. “That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the fact that there are certain concerns.”

Neurobiology Prof. Emeritus Neena Schwartz, the first president of the Association for Women in Science, said the major challenge facing women professors now is the push to receive tenure status.

“Departments are reluctant to hire women,” she said. “They will deny this.”

Villa-Komaroff said overt discrimination is rare, “but there can be a much more subtle and equally devastating discouragement that can happen for women and minorities.”

“(The) child-bearing years and years you’re expected to get your work done overlap,” she said.

Kalogera said she never confronted gender discrimination, but “it’s hard to enter the circle.”

“It’s not impossible,” Kalogera said. ‘It takes a little bit of proving to others (that) you are worth listening to. People pay more attention in the beginning. They’re curious about you when you first appear on the scene.”

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NU’s science gender gap narrowing, profs say