by Christina Hulbe
Long time without a post, I know. This is always a busy time of year and unlike past springs, my spare time has been in part consumed by a local labor struggle. I've been inspired momentarily up out of my mire by reporting on a new book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett at the Center for Work-Life Policy. The New York Times reports on its content here (in the fashion section).
Updated: with a better book link to all of Hewlett's publications through the Harvard Business School Press, including The Athena Factor, Off Ramps and On Ramps, and Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science.
Women are winnowed from science and engineering as rank increases. In my own area, geoscience (pdf), 34% of PhDs are awarded to women and the numbers fall from there. Geoscience PhDs typically lead to academia, where 26% of assistant professors in the geosciences (the first rank on the tenure track, not yet tenured) are women, 14% of associate professors (the rank typically awarded at tenure, about 7 years on the track) are women, and only 8% of full professors are women. Across the academy, the pattern is similar.
A small set of speculative explanations for the underrepresentation of women in these fields, some more credible than others, have been put forward in recent years. The new report by Sylvia Ann Hewlett stands out because it brings actual data to the analysis. The key ingredient in the recipe that pushes well-educated and highly skilled women out of science and engineering is...wait for it..sexism. Hewlett tells the New York Times “It’s almost a time warp. All the predatory and demeaning and discriminatory stuff that went on in workplaces 20, 30 years ago is alive and well in these professions." Yeah, tell me about it.
I'm not thrilled with the oft-discussed conclusion that all would be well if workplaces and workplace attitudes were more flexible with respect to the caretaking aspects of women's lives. While that would be nice, it's just a bandage over a deeper problem. What needs to be fixed is the cultural expectation of what constitutes "women's work" and the even more fundamental notions of women's autonomy and women's worth. But that's a discussion for another day and another blog (here's a crash course). In any event, Hewlett's work stands out and it is good to see this issue addressed by the popular media.