A Ceiling Made
of Laboratory Glass
Linley Erin Hall showed early promise as a perfect candidate for a scientific career. Tracing her interest in science to biological experiments she did in her Phoenix, Arizona, junior high school, she remembers, “I was most fascinated with biochemistry and little biology — cells, DNA, and proteins — rather than with elephants running across the savanna.”
Although her earliest love was writing — she started her first novel at age 12 — she remembers her mother suggesting during high school that she develop a strong sideline to pay her bills until she finished her best-selling novel. So she signed on for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Harvey Mudd, but soon began to realize that her love of science did not translate to a love of lab work.
Not only did Hall not enjoy the physical mixing of chemicals, she felt frustrated by the narrow focus of the laboratory routine. “I knew a lot about a research project in a tiny area of chemistry,” she says, “but I felt all these other interesting things were going on that I was missing out on because I had to be so specialized.”
After graduating in 2001 with her chemistry degree, she got a graduate certificate in science writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hall got a big break early in her career. Brooke Warner, an editor at Seal Press, had read Hall’s personal essay about hair in the San Francisco Chronicle and really liked her writing style. She was also intrigued by Hall’s one-sentence bio about her interest in science and engineering.
Warner contacted Hall and asked whether she was interested in writing a book about women and science. “In some ways I felt like I had cheated in getting a book deal,” says Hall, “but I still had to write the proposal and get it passed by the editorial board.” With the help of Warner, Hall started to review existing books about women and science and found they focused primarily on academe and were written in a scholarly style. She decided to focus more widely, including women in industry and government laboratories, and write a book accessible to a more general audience. The result was “Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie? The Challenges Facing Women in Science and Technology.”
Hall will be the keynote speaker for the New Jersey Council on Gender Parity’s second annual Women in the Science and Technology Workforce Summit at the Conference Center at Mercer on Friday, May 30, at 8 a.m. The conference will focus on mentoring practices, workplace climate, K-12 science education, marketing science as “cool,” and connecting education with careers. For more information, contact Lisa Weisser at 908-578-9443, or email@example.com.
Hall’s first exposure to the difficulties women can face in science was as a summer researcher for one of her professors at Harvey Mudd. “She was a mentor to me and also one of the reasons why I decided not to continue in science,” says Hall. She saw the demands placed on this female assistant professor, who struggled to balance committee work, teaching, and research and deal with departmental politics as she sought tenure.
Hall also saw close up the pressures that affect all scientists, like the push to get research results published combined with the difficulty getting grants from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health to fund research. “You have to show a certain level of productivity before getting money to continue,” says Hall, “and it’s getting harder and harder to get government money because of budget cuts and because more people are out there doing science.”
Despite the hard work, Hall’s mentor was denied tenure. Instead of giving up or moving to industry, she started another tenure-track position elsewhere, which Hall saw as very brave.
Perhaps with her former professor in mind, Hall felt it was crucial to bring into her book the voices and stories of real women. Reaching out to friends and acquaintances, blogs, and relevant listservs, Hall found more women willing to share their stories than she had time to interview.
Hall found a number of obstacles that tend to push women away from science-related fields.
Discouraging words. “There is still a sense in our society that science is for boys,” says Hall, citing a widespread belief in innate differences between men and women that men are better at math and science and women at verbal activities like writing and communication. Women, therefore, are discouraged from pursuing science as early as elementary or junior high school.
Because science and math were for so long male-only realms, the scientific artifacts reflect this “men’s club” ethos. Common science units we use were often named after the people who made the discoveries related to them — primarily men: Mr. Watt. Mr. Joule. Or look at the science texts in elementary and high schools, where the great preponderance of discoveries were made by men. Even today women’s work may not find its way into these texts. “Now women are making incredible discoveries,” says Hall, “but they are often too specialized and complex to be presented to a ninth grader.” She adds that some texts do try to include special sections about women in science.
Hall suggests that young women reading such texts might tend to think: “Well, there are not very many women. This must not be the field for me.” Yet even in environments that are not very supportive, emphasizes Hall, each particular girl is going to have a different experience. Consider two girls in the same classroom, both getting subtle messages from the teacher that boys are more suited to science. One may have a mother at home who is a physicist and is counteracting these messages by doing experiments with her daughter and taking her to the science museum. Others of the girls may simply fall in love with science: “Despite getting negative messages from different sources, they say, `This is something I like; I’m going to do it.’”
Another issue in K to 12 science affects both boys and girls. Due in part to budget cuts, science often focuses on memorizing facts rather than asking a question, designing an experiment to answer it, and learning through this discovery process.
Women also encounter subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in college science programs. “In the college years, there are still the attitudes that women shouldn’t be there and sometimes this translates into actual discrimination,” says Hall. One common but subtle form of discrimination comes from male students who form all-male study groups. Not only are the women not invited to join, but they may not even know the groups exist.
“The idea that men form networks that leave women out of is a powerful one that continues throughout a woman’s career;” observes Hall. “Many men recognize that women are intelligent, strong, powerful, and have a lot to offer; but there are still men who tend to cluster with other men and don’t think to actively include women in such ventures.”
Once women make it to graduate school, they have more battles to fight. Graduate school’s focus is research under a faculty mentor, and a fair number of faculty advisors prefer men to women. “Some are plain sexist and expect a man do better work,” says Hall. “Some are afraid that a woman will marry and have children, which will affect her productivity.”
Networking. Because the relationship between advisor and advisee is crucial both in graduate school and postgraduate career; a poor relationship may make it harder not only for a female student to get a degree but also to find a good postdoctoral fellowship. “The advisor may be helping male students to network and introduce them to colleagues at conferences but they are not doing the same for female students,” says Hall. “In many cases this is completely unconscious on the part of the advisor or the men who are involved. They are not sitting down to not include women; they are simply unconsciously acting on these ingrained ideas about what is appropriate and what’s not.”
Women in science must continue to create their own networks. Successful initiatives are ensuring that women do not feel isolated by expanding the mentoring available to women in the scientific community and providing them with a safe space to share their experiences.
Sometimes, says Hall, women won’t talk about discrimination for fear of jeopardizing their careers. Yet Hall emphasizes that it is important to break this silence, and women are starting to do that. Hall observes, “Now more women are saying, ‘This is what happened to me, and it is not right.’ Some are doing it anonymously online or in such places as my book, and some under their own names. It is important to tell those stories not only to women but to men as well.”
Academic support. Corporations, universities, and other organizations must create and support policies that help women and also men who struggle to balance family and career. All scientists are expected to work extremely long hours, and Hall suggests the policies would be good for men as well as women: the possibility of working part time, the ability to telecommute, the availability of on-site childcare, and possible extensions to tenure clocks. But, notes Hall, if these policies are seen as concessions to women and are only used by women, executives and administrators will avoid them as much as possible.
Part of the problem has to do with how our society defines “ideal” workers — individuals who are very focused and committed to their work, are completely flexible, and are able to work long hours. “They can go to Tokyo tomorrow if their boss wants them to,” says Hall. “Generally these have been men who have stay-at-home wives that enable their men to be focused on their employers,” says Hall. But what happens when two ideal workers live in the same household? Someone else is raising their kids, says Hall.
But things are beginning to change. “Today it is not just mothers but also fathers who are not interested in working 80 hours per week and not seeing junior,” Hall says. “If we see more men who want to have shorter hours, paternity leave, and more time with family, then these policies will be more accepted and employers will see them as something important.” Yet even when companies have family-friendly policies on the books, women are often afraid to use them. Hall cites a University of Maryland study based on interviews with women who work in different chemical companies. When asked about using family-friendly policies, women said that in some cases managers refused to let them use the ones on the books. They might, for example, say they need a full-time, not a part-time, worker. Bottom line, says Hall: “Women are afraid that by asking they would be seen as less useful workers and eventually have their jobs jeopardized by it.”
She continues, “It is very important for teachers to become aware of what their biases may be so that they are sending the right messages and are telling their female students that they can succeed in math and science,” says Hall. If not they may be subtly discouraging their female students without intending to. Hall adds that it is important for kids to have hands-on experience doing experiments where the outcome is not obvious.
“I remember that many of the lab experiments that I did growing up were cookbook style,” says Hall. “I knew what I was going to get at the end — that’s not discovery, that is following directions.”
Hall grew up with non-scientist parents, although her mother has worked for years in business operations and human relations at the school of engineering at Arizona State University. Early on she was around people who were very interested in science and engineering. Once Hall got her science writing certificate, she joined her mother in the school of engineering as a science writer, but a year later decided to go freelance.
Although Hall believes that as more women get into the field we are likely to see women succeeding, she has chosen not to go into research. “Science writing presented an opportunity to use the science training I had and get back into writing and be much more of a generalist in science,” she says. “I can learn about the different discoveries people are making and talk to them about their work and not to be in the lab worrying about splashing chemicals on myself.”
— Michele Alperin