Gender Equality Remains An Illusion For Women In Science, Study Says

November 04, 1998

If you are a woman scientist or engineer working in an organization portraying itself as "gender neutral," it's still best to act like a man if you want to get ahead, according to a new research study.

In "Women's Science: Learning and Succeeding from the Margins," to be published this month by the University of Chicago Press, education Professor Margaret Eisenhart of the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author Elizabeth Finkel studied four places where a high percentage of women are involved in learning or pursuing a career in science. Finkel is a former professor at the University of Michigan now teaching high school science in Berwick, Maine.

The four locations were a non-profit conservation corporation, a politically active environmental group, a graduate-level engineering program and an elective high school genetics class. Female participation in the four programs ranged from 26 percent to 50 percent.

The gender gap among scientists and engineers is well documented. Although the percentages of girls and women studying math and science rose in the 1980s, women remain well below men in most fields. In addition, increases posted in the 1990s have slowed, and in some cases reversed, Eisenhart said.

Figures on women employed as scientists or engineers are even more discouraging, she said. Even controlling for years in the workforce, women find fewer jobs, advance more slowly and earn less money.

In fact, the authors wanted to include a research laboratory or academic department at a major research university with a substantial percentage of women in the natural or physical sciences but were unsuccessful in finding one. Places where women's numbers are substantial are in organizations outside of laboratories and universities -- organizations that offer significantly less pay, security and prestige, Eisenhart said.

Women in these organizations are very successful at doing science, yet they receive little public attention for their accomplishments. The organizations tended to work on solutions to particular problems rather than doing basic research.

For example, problems included how to remodel a historic building to meet requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act while maintaining its historic character or how to preserve a threatened habitat in the face of local resistance.

Though the women working on these problems were successful at science and were rewarded about the same as men, Eisenhart also found that "they do well only to the extent that they act like prototypical white, male employees."

"When jobs require long and unpredictable hours, travel alone, out-of-town trips and last-minute meetings -- all of which are characteristic of high-paying, high-status jobs in this country -- the work world is not gender neutral," Eisenhart said. "These job requirements assume that someone else is available to take care of children, sick parents and household chores. They also assume that there is no need for special concern about personal safety in unfamiliar public places."

Women managers made no difference. In one instance involving door-to-door canvassing, for example, women who were concerned about their safety were told by their female supervisor that they could not work in pairs.

Men who raised the same concerns in these organizations also had difficulties, suffering a loss of prestige, being cut out of decisions and attracting questions about how serious they were about their careers, she said.

The irony is that women were attracted to these jobs in the first place because the high percentages of women seemed to indicate better job possibilities than in other organizations, and because older employees described the work as "gender neutral" or not favoring or discriminating on the basis of gender.

"Gender neutrality existed in these organizations only in the weak sense that women and men faced the same requirements and obstacles," Eisenhart said. "In a more importance sense, it did not exist: Acting like a prototypic man was expected; acting like a woman was not."
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Contact: Margaret Eisenhart, 303-492-8583
Peter Caughey, 303-492-4007
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University of Colorado at Boulder

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