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Issues and Answers/Women in Science

Source: Rice News, March 10, 1994

Editor's Note: March is nationally designated Women's History Month in recognition of the contributions American women have made to the growth and strength of our country. One contribution that remains overlooked is that of women scientists. Mary Fanett Wheeler, the Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics, speaks with Rice News correspondent Michéle Pavarino about some of the victories that she has seen in her field as well as the uphill struggle that her junior colleagues continue to face. Despite the obstacles, Wheeler stands as a symbol to women in science that one can achieve both personal and professional success.

Rice News: What are some of the major achievements of women scientists in the past few decades?

Mary Wheeler: There have been enormous strides made in terms of having women on the faculties of universities, as chairs of boards, and as presidents of companies. Before, there were virtually none.

What is the outcome of all this? Well, there certainly are more opportunities in the sense that there are more grants that are now available for women. Not that there wasn't funding available before, but the few available grants went only to full and associate professors, not to instructors.

This increased visibility of women scientists is also reflected in increased numbers of coed graduate students. Only 2 percent of the Ph.D.'s granted in the mathematical sciences in 1973 in this country went to women. By 1993, that figure had risen to 27 percent. Rice leads the nation in the percentage of underrepresented minorities accepted and graduated in this discipline.

I'm not sure what has brought that on. Some of it is probably economic because now many families have to have two incomes to make ends meet. But I think there's been a change in our society. The feminist movement has had a tremendous impact on women having opportunities in terms of grants and of just being accepted into academic programs. There were cases where there were very few women faculty and others where there were just none at all. After Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) passed, a lot of women who had been instructors were actually made full professors. Certainly legislation has been a factor in accounting for this growth in women scientists. More important, though, has been society, in the sense that it is now not unusual for a woman to go and get a Ph.D. and for people to think "That's great" rather than "It's terrible that this radical is leaving her family and going to graduate school or medical school."

RN: How long do you think these changes have been in effect?

MW: They began in the 1960s. Of course, during World War II, women did a lot of work in the factories. They also flew non-combat military missions. Recognition of what they did has been quite late in coming. There are several groups of women who were Wacs and Waves that are only now receiving recognition for their valuable service.

That said, it was just part of the 1960s, the culture of the 1960s, that allowed for individuality and for more opportunity. There were very few engineering coeds when I was an undergraduate. I remember walking into my chemical engineering class and someone asking me, "Well, who do you belong to?" They thought I either had a boyfriend in the class or was the daughter of the professor. There might have been a woman who got a degree in engineering, but she was a singleton. There are lots of women, certainly in science, in engineering, who were first. They've had to overcome social pressures, especially what to do about a family. At the same time, their presence in the scientific community has increased the availability of grants and financial support, thus allowing women to be able to go back to school.

RN: Do you think it's more difficult for a woman than for a man to get a research grant?

MW: No. Gender is considered in reviewing grants. Many of the great agencies will try to balance both gender and minority status as well as [the applicant's] geographic area. And, in some cases, I think it is easier today for a woman to get a grant than for a man.

RN: Do you think women mathematicians have a greater chance entering applied science or doing basic research?

MW: I think, on the whole, that there is more opportunity in applied science as opposed to basic research. My impression is that most women in mathematics go into basic research. They go more into algebra and topology than into engineering and applications. On the applied level, for some reason, fewer women have been as challenged or as interested as in the basic research areas. There is a concern in mathematics that we certainly have to push the more applied areas for the health of the discipline.

RN: Once women scientists have received their Ph.D.'s, do you think that they have a hard time finding jobs in the academic world?

MW: The university's student population is decreasing. At the same time, there's no longer the requirement that faculty members retire at 65. Mathematicians are an aging workforce. What that impact is going to be on the younger mathematics population is unclear.

Some U.S. citizens have difficulties because there are more immigrants coming in these days, especially from Eastern Europe. Less than one-half of the new Ph.D. recipients in mathematics are U.S. citizens, and the majority of them go into academia. There would be an oversupply of academic positions if we didn't have the immigrants coming in. But now there is a shortage. There are a lot of well-known Russian professors, superstars, who are trying to get jobs. That's taking resources that could have gone to some of these people that were told there were going to be all these positions out there. This pehonomenon is coupled with a flat or declining growth in the universities.

So what does that mean? It really means that if you're going to have a growing field, and the number of Ph.D.'s is growing, the only available positions will be in industry. I think for women in industry there are lots of opportunities.

RN: What are some of the obstacles women scientists continue to face in the work environment?

MW: I think the problem women have in getting jobs is that they tend to marry other mathematicians or other scientists. Therefore, they are not mobile. There are opportunities, but mobility has always been, and still is, a major problem. How do you both get a job at the same institution? Nepotism rules make it difficult for many companies to hire two people from the same family. Mobility is a difficult problem. How to balance your life and get tenure: when I talk with young women starting families, that seems to be one of their major concerns.

A second concern centers around a family. This is what makes many women leave the field. There are lots of pressures on women for tenure. If you have small children, it's very difficult really to put out the effort that is needed to achieve tenure. People have talked about creating two tracks, one for women and one for men, and having the track for women be slower. But most women do not like that because they feel that could simply be used as one means of discrimination.

There have been some changes, though. For example, many afternoon colloquia have now been moved up in time from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m., like ours have in this department. People realize that women and men who drive in carpools are unable to teach until 5 p.m. Another change is that women generally don't teach early morning classes, out of consideration for family concerns that might arise unexpectedly.

I can remember when I called up a company in Houston after graduating from college and they asked me, "Are you a woman?" I said yes. There I was, a University of Texas graduate, Phi Beta Kappa, and I knew they were looking for people in this technical area. Their concern was that if I had to work late at night, how would I get to my car. I would have to walk to my car, and it would be dangerous. Of course, Houston today is a lot more dangerous than it was in the sixties. In other words, there were lots of problems with women being hired. There was the concern that they would hire you and train you and then you would get married and start a family and you would leave them. Those were two major issues. And now it's illegal to ask anyone a question about her family.

Today, a lot of women with families are continuing to work. I think that part of the thing is the child care issue. The hardest thing for a woman is to be away from her children when they get sick. For me, the support of my family, in particular, my mother, was essential. The Family Leave Act is a tremendous help in this area. If there were only some available child care on campus or nearby in the Village. The future of women depends upon the child care issue.

Attending meetings and scheduling conferences is another concern that women have.

If that weren't enough, when you're up for tenure, besides consideration of your research and teaching, it's always good to have spent a year visiting some institute. That's very difficult to do with a husband and a family.

There's still sexual harassment. Compared to the past, though, it's orders of magnitude improvement. Today's young women starting out have a much easier time, in some sense, than I had. Still, they have some of the same problems. The questions of mobility, how to balance family with career and finding child care still remain.

Moreover, with marriage comes double taxation. It is really expensive to be married. Today, there are some ways to deduct child care. Years ago we didn't even have that. Even so, a family in which the wife works is quite expensive because invariably the couple needs to have some help in the home.

Try to do it all. I don't see how you can and get tenure.

RN: Do you find it difficult to balance research, which is vital for scholarly recognition, and teaching, which is vital for the next generation of scientists?

MW: I do. When you're a woman, you have so many committees that people want you to serve on. You get asked to review and referee proposals. You get asked for a whole collection of things, because they would like to have a minority represented. And when there are not many women, you really get more than your share. The question is how to balance national and international visibility with scholarly activities, teaching, and serving on committees at the university. It's a difficult task for a woman to serve on all these committees. One of the difficulties, especially on national committees, is that you want to be sure that women are encouraged in your profession. You want to make sure that they're well represented. There is a certain sense of obligation. You feel that you could conceivably make a difference.

RN: Do you feel that women scientists are undervalued?

MW: I think that scientists in general are undervalued. We are going through a period now of public criticism of universities and research programs. I think monies are going to get very, very tight for research. We're going to have to push very hard to help find a better way of telling the public why it's important to have a good, strong scientific program.

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