Dynamist Blog

How to Get More Female Scientists

Differences among individuals--whether of interests, priorities, talents, or childhood experiences--lead to different career choices and opportunities. A lot of the debate over women and work, and most of the debate over Larry Summers's remarks, is about which differences are important and whether those differences indicate some underlying injustice. But, perhaps because I'm less interested in aggregates than a lot of social scientists, I think the essential question is a different one: Take a man and a woman who are the same on all those dimensions--same talents, same obsession with work, same supportive, slower-track spouse, same great mentors, same educational success--is there some difference that will nonetheless put the woman at a professional disadvantage? And the answer, especially in the university, is, of course, yes.

Biology has its own rules, which culture and technology can change only so much. One of those rules is that it's really hard to get pregnant if you're 40 but pretty easy to father a child at that age. Men postpone child rearing into their 40s with little consequence. Women cannot. That's a problem for professional women in general, but it's a much bigger problem for women on a tenure clock. And the later that tenure clock starts, the bigger a problem it is. That's why an amibitous female scientist faces problems that an ambitious female lawyer doesn't. Law school takes only three years; you're out at 25, and only 27 if you spend a couple of years clerking for judges. Work like a dog for seven years, postponing any thought of kids, and you're just 34. Your biological clock hasn't yet run down. (That's even more true in my profession, one of the few that doesn't require graduate training.)

If, however, you spend six years in grad school and another two as a postdoc, you'll be 30 when you get your first tenure-track post--and that's assuming you don't work between college and grad school. I don't have the numbers, but science training is notorious for stretching out the doctoral/postdoc process, in part because the researchers heading labs benefit from having all that cheap, talented help. Female scientists who want kids are in trouble, even assuming they have husbands who'll take on the bulk of family responsibilities.

So, if a university like Harvard wants to foster the careers of female scientists, this is my advice: Speed up the training process so people get their first professorial jobs as early as possible--ideally, by 25 or 26. Accelerate undergraduate and graduate education; summer breaks are great for students who want to travel or take professional internships, but maybe science students should spend them in school. Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish their Ph.D.s. Spend more of those huge endowments on reducing (or eliminating) teaching assistant loads and other distractions from a grad student's own research and training. If you want more female scientists, ceteris paribus (as the economists say), stop extending academic adolescence.

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