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Critical Mass: Women in Academic Science

The persisting underrepresentation of women in many science and engineering fields stands in contrast to increasing female representation in other traditionally male professions and occupations. In an effort to examine the phenomenon, 150 interviews were conducted at 30 academic science departments in five disciplines at research institutions (Etzkowitz et al. 1994). The disciplines were biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Departments were chosen for their high, low, or improving performance on the proportion of doctoral degree awards to women between the mid-1970's and 1990. Interviewees were female graduate students and faculty members in all departments and male students and faculty members in three departments.
The interviews were designed to examine the applicability of the "critical mass" theory in considering the dynamics of progress toward greater female representation. A "critical mass" is defined as a strong minority of at least 15 percent. "The hypothesis of critical mass states that even when only a small presence in a larger population, a minority group (especially one that has traditionally been discriminated against) is easily marginalized, its continued presence and survival is in constant jeopardy often against outside intervention and resistance to prevent extinction" (Etzkowitz et al. 1994, p. 12). As the level of participation increases, at a particular point the perspectives of members of both groups change and the character of the relations between the groups begins to change qualitatively.
A variant of the approach hypothesizes that the transition effect is heightened because, during the initial period prior to the achievement of critical mass, growth in the minority group presence and participation is met with greater hostility and more determined resistance. Conflict may come to a crisis at the point at which critical mass is achieved.
Interviews addressed the effects of sociability and isolation in science, the limits of change induced by critical mass, and the emergence of distinctive female scientific roles. A key finding was that as the number of female faculty members in a department increases, they divide into recognizable subgroups. Senior female scientists may share the values and workstyles of older men, while younger women are attempting to create an alternative scientific role, an objective more likely to be shared by male and female scientists of the same generation.
Findings offered evidence to support both of the two contrasting approaches to the theory. In some instances the presence of a larger number of women encouraged significant positive change. In other cases it provoked increasingly sharp conflict, with the final outcome not always the achievement of critical mass.
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