"Rethinking the Rules to Promote Diversity"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
American Chemical Society
Presidential Symposium on Diversity
August 18, 2002
Good afternoon. It's a great pleasure to be here with
you on the 75th anniversary of the Women
Chemists Committee, and to celebrate its venerable
history with this symposium.
I congratulate ACS for its leadership in "Rethinking
the Rules"--as I've called my talk today--the rules
that govern the advancement of women in chemistry.
In particular, President Eli Pierce and President-elect
Elsa Reichmanis have shown a deep commitment to diversity--as
evidenced by the many events on the topic at this
Diversity is a complex, multi-dimensional subject,
but given the Committee's anniversary, it's appropriate
to highlight the particular dimension of women in
science. ACS has shown comprehensive leadership on
promoting diversity, and we need that to continue.
A number of noted women chemists have served as ACS
president and one now chairs the Board.
ACS has outstanding programs for women, and the effort
by Chemical and Engineering News to showcase
outstanding women chemists deserves mention. I also
note the symposium on diversity at last October's
ACS meeting in Chicago, which explored the question
"Why are women almost invisible on the chemistry faculties
of the top fifty leading research universities?"
I'll begin on this daunting topic--diversity in science--with
a personal recollection.
When I went to high school, girls simply were not allowed
to take physics. More to the point, my high school
chemistry teacher told me I would never make
it in chemistry--because women could not.
Some attitudes, we can be thankful, have been exposed
as patently absurd; some "rules" have been rewritten.
Today we rarely hear blatant condemnation of women
in science. Women have entered chemistry in droves,
and now receive about a third of the PhDs.
While many women chemists, from Mary Good to Mary Anne
Fox, from Elsa Reichmanis to Helen Free, currently
play visible and superb leadership roles, we all recognize
that we still have a long way to go to create the
diverse workforce our nation needs. The number of
women receiving chemistry doctorates has risen steadily,
but not women on senior faculty of our colleges and
It's high time we rethought some other rules, those
that govern women's advancement in academia. As Princeton
chemist George McLendon put it at the October symposium,
"Academic institutions are intrinsically monastic
institutions that were created in the 13th
century. They might need a little fine-tuning."
Today, I want to concentrate on factors for the success
of women in academia, since that is NSF's emphasis
and also because this panel's eminent speakers from
industry will explore the situation for women in the
I'll note a few reasons why science needs diversity;
then move to a broad sketch of women in science generally
and in chemistry in particular. I'll emphasize where
the real rethinking of rules must take place--within
institutions, and then cite examples of such activities.
For a microbiologist like myself, there are some truths
about the value of diversity and environment in natural
systems that are tempting to apply to human systems
The interconnectedness of life is a very deep law,
and greater diversity makes for a more robust ecosystem
than does a monoculture. The environment must nourish
any organism, or it will not survive--just like the
environment for a young scientist, which can be chilling
Another truth of the natural world is that systems
are always evolving. Indeed, the vitality of the ecosystem
depends on this ability to adapt and on its complexity.
Our nation is changing. As our economy becomes more
knowledge-driven, we will need to draw on the more-than-half
of our population that avoids the pursuit of science
and engineering, or we will not be able to maintain
the pace of discovery.
As our national workforce becomes increasingly diverse,
a scientific enterprise with mainly white, male faces
risks sending the signal that others are not welcome.
Who teaches the next generation is important.
One obstacle to increasing diversity is what's been
termed "the reflecting pool"--the tendency for faculty
to hire and promote those like themselves.
At the teaching level, the percentage of women faculty
has been cited as the best predictor of future success
of female undergraduates. After my negative experiences
with teachers and counselors, in high school, college
certainly offered me an outstanding mentor--Dr. Dorothy
Powelson, a bacteriologist who inspired a number of
women, myself included, to choose science as a career.
Diversity propagates diversity. Faculty demographics
that reflect the student mix will enable better mentoring.
A diverse faculty also serves as a beacon to young
scientists who are exploring the possibilities for
For a moment, let's step back for a wider inspection
of where women stand in higher education. Of senior
faculty in natural science and engineering, just 12.5%
are women. Overall in science and engineering, 94%
of full professors are white, and 90% are male. Furthermore,
women earn less at every level.
The latest data from 2000 show women earning 36% of
science and engineering PhDs, from 16% in engineering
to 67% in psychology. Still, the problem for women
in many fields is largely not in getting a PhD; it
is their differential status after they enter academia.
Where does chemistry stand for women, compared to other
sciences? At the National Research Council's 2000
workshop, "Women in the Chemical Workforce," Margaret
Rossiter, Cornell University historian of science,
said, "Many fields of science are doing better than
chemistry--including many but not all of the social
sciences and biology. Chemistry departments are just
now getting to the point where almost all have one
or more women faculty members."
While that may look like progress, one or two women
in a department of fifteen to twenty faculty is hardly
a profound change.
If women are only beginning to breach the glass ceiling
in academic chemistry, underrepresented minorities
have an even longer way to go--according to Donna
Nelson's celebrated study of chemistry faculties.
Nelson, of the University of Oklahoma, surveyed the
top 50 chemistry departments. Of more than 1600 top
faculty members, only 43 were minorities. Perhaps
her most striking finding was that chemistry departments
of the top 50 had "zero" African- American assistant
professors--even though 319 chemistry PhDs were granted
to African-Americans between 1991 and 1999. The number
granted per year has also risen, from 23 in 1991 to
56 in 1999. In addition, there were only 17 African-American
faculty in total--11 full professors and 6 associate
Women, too, are lost from academe's "leaky pipeline"
every step of the way, all the way up to senior faculty
level. In economic terms alone, that's a disastrous
investment strategy. At the top, in the National Academies
of Science and Engineering, whose membership is one
of the highest honors in science, there are only a
handful of women chemists, and even fewer African
Americans. Between 1923 and 1970, ten women of any
discipline were elected to NAS.
Currently, the National Academy of Sciences has 154
women out of a total of 2304 members, about 6%. At
the National Academy of Engineering, there are 67
women out of 2233 -- 3%. At the Institute of Medicine,
women number 263 out of 1404 members--19% -- 16% if
you don't count emeritus and foreign members.
The National Academies of Science and Engineering do
not officially track the race of members. The IOM
does: It has 82 African-American members, 1 Native
American, and 17 Hispanics.
To be sure, the situation has been improving. For example,
female members of NAS have doubled over the past decade.
However, women NAS members are not well-represented
across fields, with the majority in the biosciences.
At the other end of the spectrum, at beginning career
levels, many women scientists never enter academia,
or leave it in discouragement, after finding the environment
isolating, cold and hostile. It has been observed
that more women chemists seem to be choosing industry--perhaps
others here today from industry will comment further
on that observation. NSF chemist Marge Cavanaugh observes,
"I think there is a push away from universities as
well as a pull by industry." It's possible that industry
offers a better environment for women to succeed--with
more-defined rules, rewards for hard work including
better salaries, a reasonable workday, a clear bottom
line, and more control over one's life.
What factors conspire against the rise of women who
do enter academe? We are realizing that we must foster
change not in individual women--remember the growing
numbers of women PhDs--but at the institutional level.
As Virginia Valian of Hunter College observes, "...Women
start out slightly behind men in rank and tenure and
become increasingly disadvantaged with age." We have
learned that subtle, small disadvantages accumulate
to hold back women scientists and engineers. As a
computer simulation has shown, even a tiny bias toward
promoting men can result in an eventual domination
of a hierarchy by male leaders.
The data from the celebrated Massachusetts Institute
of Technology study showed that less lab space, research
time, travel funds, and all the small perks that make
a huge difference over a lifetime can thwart even
the most hard-working and dedicated woman scientist
and engineer; more about MIT in a moment.
Certainly much thinking should take place about rewriting
the rule of balance between family and career in academia,
a balance that is difficult for both men and women,
but that often proves more complex for women.
Many factors foster success--there is no one way to
balance the equation. We have become very aware, however,
that academic institutions must be partners in creating
environments that truly value diversity.
As an example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
has done yeoman's work in examining the situation
of its women faculty.
One striking finding a few years ago was that no woman
in the School of Science had ever served as department
head or director of a center or laboratory in MIT's
history. Initially, this and other problems were addressed
on a case-by-case basis. Now, problems are dealt with
on an institutional level. "This is a profound change,
says a new MIT report, "probably the most important
to occur for some decades."
There is new realization that the time-honored system
of compensating faculty may be "gender-biased"--favoring
men but discouraging women or two-career couples.
After its study of science faculty, MIT expanded the
investigation to other schools. At the management
school, men and women's experiences were discovered
to be so different that they were, in effect, working
at different schools--a finding that Dean Richard
Schmalensee termed "profoundly disturbing."
In the engineering school, Dean Thomas Magnanti wrote
in a statement, "We learn [that] some of our women
faculty...have never been asked to serve on the PhD
committee of even one of their colleagues' students...Stunning."
MIT's Provost, Robert A. Brown, has noted some institutional
changes that could certainly help improve the academic
climate, ranging from identifying a larger number
of women and minority candidates for positions, to
delaying the tenure decision by one year for a woman
having a child, to arranging a half-time appointment
for faculty caring for a family member.
We can see how such changes may indeed benefit not
only women but everyone involved. Such changes, we
hope, will also make academic careers more appealing
to young people and halt the current squandering of
science and engineering talent. At a fundamental level,
these changes must be embraced at the very top of
universities and embedded in university policy.
From the standpoint of a Federal funding agency, I
can point to another example of institutional change--what
we refer to in NSF shorthand as "Criterion 2." We
have two criteria for merit review of proposals we
receive. The first criterion is intellectual merit.
The second one asks the proposer, "What are the broader
impacts of the proposed activity?"
As a Federal agency supporting fundamental science,
we take this criterion very seriously, but we have
learned that we must be specific, providing guidance
and illustrative examples to prospective grantees.
Under Criterion 2, we explicitly state that "Broadening
opportunities and enabling the participation of all
citizens--men and women, underrepresented minorities,
and persons with disabilities--are essential to the
health and vitality of science and engineering. NSF
is committed to this principle of diversity and deems
We've learned that promoting diversity begins with
guidance on grant proposals and extends every step
of the way, as an element in the final evaluation
of the work.
Our newest flagship program to address the low numbers
of women in science and engineering is called ADVANCE.
The program intends to spark system-wide changes that
will foster a more positive climate for women to pursue
ADVANCE seeks to bring more women into science and
engineering, but ADVANCE is not limited to women.
As I have mentioned before, men need to participate
in these changes, they will also benefit from them,
and they are eligible for all three types of awards.
- Fellows awards give those individuals who had
limits to their career advancement--perhaps because
of raising children, other family needs, or related
factors--a chance to jumpstart the continuation
of careers. Marcia O. Fenley, at the Institute
of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University,
has received one such award, through NSF's Chemistry
and Physics Divisions.
- The second type of award, for institutional transformation,
supports institutions that define effective approaches
to drawing women faculty into the upper ranks.
- Leadership awards, the third type, recognize contributions
toward increasing the participation of women in
academic science and engineering careers.
The NSF program manager for ADVANCE, Alice Hogan, emphasizes
that the program, which gives substantial awards,
sends the message that NSF values and rewards the
hard work needed to change the conditions for women
in science and engineering--and gives participants
an opportunity to make a real difference over the
So far, Hogan continues, ADVANCE has taught us that
promoting diversity needs a variety of approaches.
Every ADVANCE study has followed a different model.
We've also learned to focus on changing institutions--not
on changing women--and that institutional commitment
to diversity is fundamental to "rewriting the rules."
To be sure, ADVANCE shows that change must take place
within a particular institution's culture. At the
University of Colorado, for example, the approach
is to cultivate leadership skills--familiarizing future
academic leaders, men and women, with research on
how academic culture can be biased against women.
At the University of Michigan, departments are the
focus as they work on how to create a supportive environment
for women. After all, it's in the department where
faculty dynamics play out most directly.
I want to mention another program with very interesting
results: that's the Committee on the Advancement of
Women Chemists--COACh for short. Coach's initial focus
is helping women in the upper echelon of academia--associate
and full professors, and it uses workshops to hone
women's negotiation and leadership skills. A significant
proportion of women in academic chemistry have already
attended the workshops.
As Coach leader Geri Richmond of the University of
Oregon explains, "Changes in the system will take
a long time, but in the meantime women must have the
daily skills to work in the system."
As an example, at one of the earlier workshops, an
accomplished full- professor in chemistry, a woman
from a top-ten university, arrived distraught, having
just been told her laboratory space was being reduced.
Incidentally, she had always taught the large freshman
chemistry courses. The Coach facilitators suggested
that she bring an arbitrator to the negotiations with
the department chair. The result: She not only retained
her laboratory space, but was appointed chair of the
committee that apportioned teaching duties.
If you want to know more about COACh, I understand
its results and future plans will be discussed in
two presentations on Tuesday this week. NSF has given
COACh an ADVANCE leadership award that recognizes
this grassroots effort emerging out of the chemistry
There is also the Women Chemists Committee's "Progress
Project;" covering everything from recognition of
corporate diversity to supporting women lectureships
to an academic summit on successful environments for
I suspect that a diversity of efforts like these--springing
from funding agencies, scientific societies, and the
community, and many in between, will foster a range
of solutions--and the rules will indeed be rewritten
to broaden opportunities for scientific and engineering
careers for women.
Diversity gives greater scope for adaptation and innovation--traits
our social systems, our nation and our economy, also
need. A more diverse science and engineering workforce
will bring in different talents, approaches and experiences.
Diversity itself becomes a critical attribute, not
to mention flexibility, innovation, and creativity.
All are factors for success, especially now, for doing
science and engineering in the 20th century.