Women underrepresented in sciences

Liz Buckley

Females’ brains may not be wired the same as males’

Out of the 36 chemical physics graduate students working at the Liquid Crystal Institute only five are women, first row not pictured.

Credit: Andrew popik

Comments made by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers are still resonating within the science community.

Summers gave three possible reasons why women were underrepresented in tenured faculty positions in science and engineering:

Men are historically more prepared to make the sacrifices required for high-level positions.

Men and women may have differences in aptitude.

Search committees may discriminate against female job candidates.

“And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order I just described,” Summers said during his remarks at the January conference.

Scientists have rehashed Summers’ reasons for the lack of women in tenured faculty positions at universities and research institutions. Professors at Kent State are no exception. Summers’ remarks have provoked discussion and debate, which is exactly what he said he intended.

Brain differences

The corpus callosum is a network of nerve fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain and is thicker in females than in males. The amygdala is a part of the brain that handles emotion. A female’s amygdala appears to have more connections to regions of the brain that handle language than a male’s.

There is anecdotal evidence that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are more equal in weight in females than in males, said Sean L. Veney, assistant professor of biological sciences.

“We do see some differences in the way tasks are processed,” Veney said, such as males may use one half of the brain for a certain task while a female uses both sides of the brain to perform the same task.

“We don’t know what these differences mean,” he said. “They aren’t necessarily linked to behavior.”

Possible discrimination

Some female professors at the university said they haven’t experienced any overt discrimination based on their gender. Discrimination was more subtle, they said.

As an undergraduate, not everyone was open-minded, associate professor of biological sciences Laura Leff said. Primarily, some of the older male professors weren’t open-minded. Leff said she had been working at the National Museum of Natural History as a paleobiology technician and was discussing her future plans with a professor. Leff said when she told him she was working at the Smithsonian, he asked her if she was a secretary there.

Leff said there are so many female biology undergraduate and graduate students compared to males, but the faculty ratio of women to men doesn’t match up. The difference in position level between men and women is even more obvious, but that is because of a combination of different factors.

Associate professor of physics Elizabeth Mann said she received subtle discouragement from some people when she told them what she was studying.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, physics, that’s hard.’ I wonder if they would have said that to a guy,” Mann said.

Mann also said she has talked to two Kent State students who were told by high school guidance counselors that women can teach science but they don’t go into it.

Mann also stressed that things have gotten better.

About 10 years ago, Kent State didn’t have any female faculty members in the physics department, she said. “Now, four out of 19 are women.”

Assistant professor of biological sciences Gail Fraizer said she felt she wasn’t treated equally as a graduate student. She worked on research for her thesis but didn’t get a stipend. Fraizer said a male student started doing research and received a stipend. When she asked her adviser why the male student got money and she didn’t, he told her, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

“Somehow that male student knew to ask,” Fraizer said. “I had to start squeaking.”


Some female professors at Kent State said it wasn’t innate differences between men and women that prevent women from attaining tenured faculty positions in science and engineering, but the lack of child care.

“You have to make a choice: Either spend time with family or break through the glass ceiling,” Fraizer said.

There are many women physicists in France, Mann said. Childcare is readily available there, she said of the country where she earned her Ph.D.

Assistant professor of computer sciences Gwenn Volkert said she chose to have children and wouldn’t give the responsibility of their care over to a stranger.

“Women have had to say no more than men,” she said, referring to the sacrifices needed for career advancement.

Tracey Meilander, a biological studies doctoral student, is a mother and said she feels guilty when she can’t devote 100 percent of her time to science.

“You want to be the perfect mom and the perfect scientist,” she said.

Contact enterprise reporter Liz Buckley at [email protected].