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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Rethinking the Rules to Promote Diversity"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
American Chemical Society
Presidential Symposium on Diversity
Boston, Massachusetts

August 18, 2002

Good afternoon. It's a great pleasure to be here with you on the 75th anniversary of the Women Chemists Committee, and to celebrate its venerable history with this symposium.

I congratulate ACS for its leadership in "Rethinking the Rules"--as I've called my talk today--the rules that govern the advancement of women in chemistry. In particular, President Eli Pierce and President-elect Elsa Reichmanis have shown a deep commitment to diversity--as evidenced by the many events on the topic at this meeting.

Diversity is a complex, multi-dimensional subject, but given the Committee's anniversary, it's appropriate to highlight the particular dimension of women in science. ACS has shown comprehensive leadership on promoting diversity, and we need that to continue. A number of noted women chemists have served as ACS president and one now chairs the Board.

ACS has outstanding programs for women, and the effort by Chemical and Engineering News to showcase outstanding women chemists deserves mention. I also note the symposium on diversity at last October's ACS meeting in Chicago, which explored the question "Why are women almost invisible on the chemistry faculties of the top fifty leading research universities?"

I'll begin on this daunting topic--diversity in science--with a personal recollection.

When I went to high school, girls simply were not allowed to take physics. More to the point, my high school chemistry teacher told me I would never make it in chemistry--because women could not.

Some attitudes, we can be thankful, have been exposed as patently absurd; some "rules" have been rewritten. Today we rarely hear blatant condemnation of women in science. Women have entered chemistry in droves, and now receive about a third of the PhDs.

While many women chemists, from Mary Good to Mary Anne Fox, from Elsa Reichmanis to Helen Free, currently play visible and superb leadership roles, we all recognize that we still have a long way to go to create the diverse workforce our nation needs. The number of women receiving chemistry doctorates has risen steadily, but not women on senior faculty of our colleges and universities.

It's high time we rethought some other rules, those that govern women's advancement in academia. As Princeton chemist George McLendon put it at the October symposium, "Academic institutions are intrinsically monastic institutions that were created in the 13th century. They might need a little fine-tuning."

Today, I want to concentrate on factors for the success of women in academia, since that is NSF's emphasis and also because this panel's eminent speakers from industry will explore the situation for women in the private sector.

I'll note a few reasons why science needs diversity; then move to a broad sketch of women in science generally and in chemistry in particular. I'll emphasize where the real rethinking of rules must take place--within institutions, and then cite examples of such activities.

For a microbiologist like myself, there are some truths about the value of diversity and environment in natural systems that are tempting to apply to human systems as well.

The interconnectedness of life is a very deep law, and greater diversity makes for a more robust ecosystem than does a monoculture. The environment must nourish any organism, or it will not survive--just like the environment for a young scientist, which can be chilling or nurturing.

Another truth of the natural world is that systems are always evolving. Indeed, the vitality of the ecosystem depends on this ability to adapt and on its complexity.

Our nation is changing. As our economy becomes more knowledge-driven, we will need to draw on the more-than-half of our population that avoids the pursuit of science and engineering, or we will not be able to maintain the pace of discovery.

As our national workforce becomes increasingly diverse, a scientific enterprise with mainly white, male faces risks sending the signal that others are not welcome.

Who teaches the next generation is important. One obstacle to increasing diversity is what's been termed "the reflecting pool"--the tendency for faculty to hire and promote those like themselves.

At the teaching level, the percentage of women faculty has been cited as the best predictor of future success of female undergraduates. After my negative experiences with teachers and counselors, in high school, college certainly offered me an outstanding mentor--Dr. Dorothy Powelson, a bacteriologist who inspired a number of women, myself included, to choose science as a career.

Diversity propagates diversity. Faculty demographics that reflect the student mix will enable better mentoring. A diverse faculty also serves as a beacon to young scientists who are exploring the possibilities for their futures.

For a moment, let's step back for a wider inspection of where women stand in higher education. Of senior faculty in natural science and engineering, just 12.5% are women. Overall in science and engineering, 94% of full professors are white, and 90% are male. Furthermore, women earn less at every level.

The latest data from 2000 show women earning 36% of science and engineering PhDs, from 16% in engineering to 67% in psychology. Still, the problem for women in many fields is largely not in getting a PhD; it is their differential status after they enter academia.

Where does chemistry stand for women, compared to other sciences? At the National Research Council's 2000 workshop, "Women in the Chemical Workforce," Margaret Rossiter, Cornell University historian of science, said, "Many fields of science are doing better than chemistry--including many but not all of the social sciences and biology. Chemistry departments are just now getting to the point where almost all have one or more women faculty members."

While that may look like progress, one or two women in a department of fifteen to twenty faculty is hardly a profound change.

If women are only beginning to breach the glass ceiling in academic chemistry, underrepresented minorities have an even longer way to go--according to Donna Nelson's celebrated study of chemistry faculties.

Nelson, of the University of Oklahoma, surveyed the top 50 chemistry departments. Of more than 1600 top faculty members, only 43 were minorities. Perhaps her most striking finding was that chemistry departments of the top 50 had "zero" African- American assistant professors--even though 319 chemistry PhDs were granted to African-Americans between 1991 and 1999. The number granted per year has also risen, from 23 in 1991 to 56 in 1999. In addition, there were only 17 African-American faculty in total--11 full professors and 6 associate professors.

Women, too, are lost from academe's "leaky pipeline" every step of the way, all the way up to senior faculty level. In economic terms alone, that's a disastrous investment strategy. At the top, in the National Academies of Science and Engineering, whose membership is one of the highest honors in science, there are only a handful of women chemists, and even fewer African Americans. Between 1923 and 1970, ten women of any discipline were elected to NAS.

Currently, the National Academy of Sciences has 154 women out of a total of 2304 members, about 6%. At the National Academy of Engineering, there are 67 women out of 2233 -- 3%. At the Institute of Medicine, women number 263 out of 1404 members--19% -- 16% if you don't count emeritus and foreign members.

The National Academies of Science and Engineering do not officially track the race of members. The IOM does: It has 82 African-American members, 1 Native American, and 17 Hispanics.

To be sure, the situation has been improving. For example, female members of NAS have doubled over the past decade. However, women NAS members are not well-represented across fields, with the majority in the biosciences.

At the other end of the spectrum, at beginning career levels, many women scientists never enter academia, or leave it in discouragement, after finding the environment isolating, cold and hostile. It has been observed that more women chemists seem to be choosing industry--perhaps others here today from industry will comment further on that observation. NSF chemist Marge Cavanaugh observes, "I think there is a push away from universities as well as a pull by industry." It's possible that industry offers a better environment for women to succeed--with more-defined rules, rewards for hard work including better salaries, a reasonable workday, a clear bottom line, and more control over one's life.

What factors conspire against the rise of women who do enter academe? We are realizing that we must foster change not in individual women--remember the growing numbers of women PhDs--but at the institutional level.

As Virginia Valian of Hunter College observes, "...Women start out slightly behind men in rank and tenure and become increasingly disadvantaged with age." We have learned that subtle, small disadvantages accumulate to hold back women scientists and engineers. As a computer simulation has shown, even a tiny bias toward promoting men can result in an eventual domination of a hierarchy by male leaders.

The data from the celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showed that less lab space, research time, travel funds, and all the small perks that make a huge difference over a lifetime can thwart even the most hard-working and dedicated woman scientist and engineer; more about MIT in a moment.

Certainly much thinking should take place about rewriting the rule of balance between family and career in academia, a balance that is difficult for both men and women, but that often proves more complex for women.

Many factors foster success--there is no one way to balance the equation. We have become very aware, however, that academic institutions must be partners in creating environments that truly value diversity.

As an example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done yeoman's work in examining the situation of its women faculty.

One striking finding a few years ago was that no woman in the School of Science had ever served as department head or director of a center or laboratory in MIT's history. Initially, this and other problems were addressed on a case-by-case basis. Now, problems are dealt with on an institutional level. "This is a profound change, says a new MIT report, "probably the most important to occur for some decades."

There is new realization that the time-honored system of compensating faculty may be "gender-biased"--favoring men but discouraging women or two-career couples.

After its study of science faculty, MIT expanded the investigation to other schools. At the management school, men and women's experiences were discovered to be so different that they were, in effect, working at different schools--a finding that Dean Richard Schmalensee termed "profoundly disturbing."

In the engineering school, Dean Thomas Magnanti wrote in a statement, "We learn [that] some of our women faculty...have never been asked to serve on the PhD committee of even one of their colleagues' students...Stunning."

MIT's Provost, Robert A. Brown, has noted some institutional changes that could certainly help improve the academic climate, ranging from identifying a larger number of women and minority candidates for positions, to delaying the tenure decision by one year for a woman having a child, to arranging a half-time appointment for faculty caring for a family member.

We can see how such changes may indeed benefit not only women but everyone involved. Such changes, we hope, will also make academic careers more appealing to young people and halt the current squandering of science and engineering talent. At a fundamental level, these changes must be embraced at the very top of universities and embedded in university policy.

From the standpoint of a Federal funding agency, I can point to another example of institutional change--what we refer to in NSF shorthand as "Criterion 2." We have two criteria for merit review of proposals we receive. The first criterion is intellectual merit. The second one asks the proposer, "What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?"

As a Federal agency supporting fundamental science, we take this criterion very seriously, but we have learned that we must be specific, providing guidance and illustrative examples to prospective grantees. Under Criterion 2, we explicitly state that "Broadening opportunities and enabling the participation of all citizens--men and women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities--are essential to the health and vitality of science and engineering. NSF is committed to this principle of diversity and deems it central..."

We've learned that promoting diversity begins with guidance on grant proposals and extends every step of the way, as an element in the final evaluation of the work.

Our newest flagship program to address the low numbers of women in science and engineering is called ADVANCE. The program intends to spark system-wide changes that will foster a more positive climate for women to pursue academic careers.

ADVANCE seeks to bring more women into science and engineering, but ADVANCE is not limited to women. As I have mentioned before, men need to participate in these changes, they will also benefit from them, and they are eligible for all three types of awards.

  • Fellows awards give those individuals who had limits to their career advancement--perhaps because of raising children, other family needs, or related factors--a chance to jumpstart the continuation of careers. Marcia O. Fenley, at the Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University, has received one such award, through NSF's Chemistry and Physics Divisions.

  • The second type of award, for institutional transformation, supports institutions that define effective approaches to drawing women faculty into the upper ranks.

  • Leadership awards, the third type, recognize contributions toward increasing the participation of women in academic science and engineering careers.

The NSF program manager for ADVANCE, Alice Hogan, emphasizes that the program, which gives substantial awards, sends the message that NSF values and rewards the hard work needed to change the conditions for women in science and engineering--and gives participants an opportunity to make a real difference over the long-term.

So far, Hogan continues, ADVANCE has taught us that promoting diversity needs a variety of approaches. Every ADVANCE study has followed a different model.

We've also learned to focus on changing institutions--not on changing women--and that institutional commitment to diversity is fundamental to "rewriting the rules."

To be sure, ADVANCE shows that change must take place within a particular institution's culture. At the University of Colorado, for example, the approach is to cultivate leadership skills--familiarizing future academic leaders, men and women, with research on how academic culture can be biased against women.

At the University of Michigan, departments are the focus as they work on how to create a supportive environment for women. After all, it's in the department where faculty dynamics play out most directly.

I want to mention another program with very interesting results: that's the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists--COACh for short. Coach's initial focus is helping women in the upper echelon of academia--associate and full professors, and it uses workshops to hone women's negotiation and leadership skills. A significant proportion of women in academic chemistry have already attended the workshops.

As Coach leader Geri Richmond of the University of Oregon explains, "Changes in the system will take a long time, but in the meantime women must have the daily skills to work in the system."

As an example, at one of the earlier workshops, an accomplished full- professor in chemistry, a woman from a top-ten university, arrived distraught, having just been told her laboratory space was being reduced. Incidentally, she had always taught the large freshman chemistry courses. The Coach facilitators suggested that she bring an arbitrator to the negotiations with the department chair. The result: She not only retained her laboratory space, but was appointed chair of the committee that apportioned teaching duties.

If you want to know more about COACh, I understand its results and future plans will be discussed in two presentations on Tuesday this week. NSF has given COACh an ADVANCE leadership award that recognizes this grassroots effort emerging out of the chemistry community.

There is also the Women Chemists Committee's "Progress Project;" covering everything from recognition of corporate diversity to supporting women lectureships to an academic summit on successful environments for women faculty.

I suspect that a diversity of efforts like these--springing from funding agencies, scientific societies, and the community, and many in between, will foster a range of solutions--and the rules will indeed be rewritten to broaden opportunities for scientific and engineering careers for women.

Diversity gives greater scope for adaptation and innovation--traits our social systems, our nation and our economy, also need. A more diverse science and engineering workforce will bring in different talents, approaches and experiences. Diversity itself becomes a critical attribute, not to mention flexibility, innovation, and creativity. All are factors for success, especially now, for doing science and engineering in the 20th century.

Thank you.



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