Science and the “Fairer” Sex

Gone are the days when women are relegated to housework, secretarial employment or sitting behind a librarian’s desk. Welcome to the 21st century, where women are making great strides in fields previously dominated by men. Women, quite literally, wear the “pants” in many male-dominated professions, such as science.

Many credit Marie Curie as the first woman scientist, but this claim is actually incorrect. Hypatia of Alexandria, Egypt was actually the first documented female scientist. Records dating back to 370 A.D. indicate she received an education in Ancient Rome; she worked in the profession of teaching mathematics in her homeland, and she pursued additional education in the fields of astronomy and medicine. There is also record of her becoming an orator, writing texts about geometry (that still survive to this day), and inventing scientific tools such as the astrolabe, a device used in studying celestial bodies. At the age of 45, Hypatia was attacked on the streets of Egypt, stripped, beaten and killed with shards of broken pottery. Her offense: being an intelligent woman and speaking out against religious and sexual oppression.
Two thousand years later, the human race has evolved. No longer are women like Hypatia or Joan of Arc silenced for speaking their minds. Instead, women are highly sought after in professional fields. Our abilities to think abstractly, multitask, and be intuitive have made women ideal candidates for groundbreaking scientific work.

And today, there is not a single science that women have not permeated. In fact, women have even won Nobel prizes in fields such as physics, chemistry, physiology, and medicine. But science is a field that one does for the sheer love it, not necessarily for financial gain or benefits. There are obstacles to face from many directions.

Laura Kleiss is an agricultural scientist in the state of Florida. When asked if she has encountered any difficulties in her education or chosen profession, Laura says, “We had a few guys that were pests and said that a woman’s place is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I just laughed, and in the end I think they got the point that women are not to be reckoned with, especially in science, since women lead in grade point averages in most of the classes.”

Breaking out of the stereotypes that many women have been raised with can be one of the most challenging things one will ever face in life. “Growing up in a small town where there isn’t any diversity helped me grow into an aware woman,” Kleiss relates. “Not because of where I grew up per se, but because I was in a female-dominated sport- Figure Skating. In training camp, I learned to get along with people from around the world and compete against them. They taught me that we can all get along. The only limit was how hard you would work for it. I took this back to my small town school and tried to get everyone to open their eyes to the many different parts of the world.”

It’s this determination that has allowed women, like Kleiss, to muster the courage inside and challenge preconceived notions of what a woman can and cannot accomplish.

So, why the obvious lack of women in scientific fields? Philip Greenspun, tenured instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that one of the main reasons is that, taking into consideration the required education, intelligence, and working hours, scientific careers are some of the lowest paid in the country. Additionally, it is increasingly difficult to achieve tenure at universities or research institutions past the age of forty. Knowing this, many women choose to devote their educational and career energies to fields that will not discriminate against them in favor of new, younger graduates without familial responsibilities.

Greenspun writes in Women in Science in 2006, “Consider taking the same high IQ and work ethic [of a scientist], going into business, and being put on the fast track at a company such as General Electric. Rather than being fired at age 44, this is about the time that she will be handed ever-larger divisions to operate, with ever-larger bonuses and stock options. A top lawyer at age 44 is probably a $500,000 per year partner in a big firm … Even a public schoolteacher actually does better than a scientist … At age 22, the schoolteacher is earning a living wage and can begin making plans to get married and have children. By age 30, when the scientist is forced to start moving around to those $35,000 per year postdocs, the schoolteacher is earning $50,000 per yea.”

There is also the added pressure of multiple scientists competing with new graduates for an extremely limited number of jobs. For example, approximately 35,000 computer science degrees were issued in 2002. Yet, large companies like Microsoft and Apple only hire on a few hundred per year. With such odds against them, as well as the dangers of earning such a narrow-field degree, there’s little wonder left about the decline of women in the sciences.

So, the bottom line isn’t that women are being excluded from scientific fields; it’s just that they choose to focus their passion and energies on stable fields that will allow them competitive salaries, reasonable hours, upward mobility, and career stability. In the immortal words of Albert Einstein, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” If one does choose the field, she finds great rewards in personal satisfaction.


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