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A Long-Term Revolution

The growing dominance of women at graduation ceremonies is starting to filter up through the workforce with profound impact, but it's a slow process

by Michael Heylin
February 12, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 7

Women Today earn 57% of the bachelor's degrees, 59% of the master's degrees, 45% of the doctoral degrees, 49% of the law degrees, and 46% of the M.D.s awarded in this country. And these levels could go higher as, today, 60% of graduate students and 50% of professional school students are women.

When I joined the C&EN staff 44 years ago, there were no women on the American Chemical Society Board of Directors. Almost everything at ACS, except the Women Chemists Committee, was run by men. It took the society 96 years to elect its first woman board member, in 1972. This year, 10 of the 16 members of the ACS Board are women, including, for the first time, the society's president, board chairman, and chief executive.

An influx of women to leadership roles is also evident in academia. Today, women head Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Ohio State, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of California, San Diego.

These are the type of data that Lawrence H. Summers, then-president of Harvard University, maybe should have pondered before stepping into the abyss two years ago when he suggested that the little penetration that women have made into the higher reaches of their chosen professions may be due to their lack of commitment and aptitude compared with men, especially in the sciences.

Any impact that the relative level of commitment and ability has on the career paths of women compared with men is speculative, subject to interpretation, difficult to quantify, and a clearly perilous topic to get into.

Far more certain is that the major factor in the relative lack of women in high places today is the long history of discrimination against them and the sheer demographics of making up for this once academia and the workplace started to open up to them. For instance, many scientists and professionals in high places today earned their doctorates or professional degrees at a time when as few as 10% of such degrees were earned by women.

To put it in simplified terms, a rapid increase in the percent of those entering a profession who are women has no immediate impact on the gender makeup of the senior levels of that profession. On a strictly mathematical basis, that effect takes years-a working generation.

By this reasoning, and compared with the 34% of chemistry Ph.D.s earned by women today, the about 16% of full professors responding to last year's ACS salary and employment survey who were women may be???if not exciting???not as low as it might seem (C&EN, Sept. 18, 2006, page 42).

Constantly updated statistical data on new graduates from the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics quantify the surge of women onto the campus.

In 1980, 35,600 law degrees were earned-24,900 by men and 10,700, or 30%, by women. By 2004, male recipients were down to 20,300, whereas women were up to 19,900, or 49%. The pattern is similar for new M.D.s—with a substantial decline for men, from 11,400 graduates in 1980 to 8,300 in 2004, and a more than doubling for women, from 3,500 to 7,200—over the period.

For chemists at the doctoral level, the participation of women in subdisciplines displays considerable variation, ranging from 49% of analytical chemistry graduates being women down to 26% for organic chemistry, 25% for polymer chemistry, and 21% for theoretical chemistry.

These levels compare with women making up 68% of psychology doctoral graduates and 67% of education doctorates but only 18% of engineering and 15% of physics graduates.

The breakdown of bachelor's graduates by gender shows similar variation by discipline. At the high end, 91% of nursing graduates, 79% of education graduates, 68% of journalism graduates, and 62% of biological and biomedical graduates are women. Far less attractive to women are engineering and physics, among whose graduates only 20% and 23%, respectively, are women.

Choice will always be another major reason for differing gender career paths. There is no indication, as far as I am aware, that men don't do as well as women at nursing. But a very large majority of nurses will doubtless continue to be women. Similarly, women can do engineering. But as a group, they are not drawn to it.

In chemistry, the slightly more than 50% of bachelor's graduates who are women augurs further gains for them. But such gains will continue to be evolutionary. Today, about 26% of domestic ACS members are women, up from 15% in 1985.

The passage of time will not assuage all the career frustrations and impediments faced by women chemists, especially as individuals. Sensitivity to real or perceived discrimination remains high. For instance, the about 16% of ACS-member full professors who are women is in stark contrast to women's 10% share of full professorships at the 50 prestigious universities spending the most on chemical research (C&EN, Dec. 18, 2006, page 58). The ACS Division of Organic Chemistry recently raised eyebrows when only one of 18 fellowships it granted to third- and fourth-year graduate students was to a woman (C&EN, Nov. 27, 2006, page 38).

By earning 57% of all bachelor's degrees-the entry passes to the world of good jobs—women have a steamroller. It will help carry them eventually to reasonable equality or dominance in an increasing number of fields and professions. It will still take time. But it is inevitable.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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