March 1, 2005
A respected female scientist and scholar says there are real obstacles to women having science careers, regardless of whether biological intellectual differences come into play, as the president of Harvard said recently.
Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor in physics and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will speak Wednesday at Arizona State University about the difficulties facing women in science and what can be done to close the gender gap.
On Monday, in an interview from MIT, Dresselhaus said Lawrence Summers’ remarks were inappropriate and discouraging, but believes the incident may turn out to be good for women in the end because it will spawn more research on the issue. That could lead to a better understanding of how to teach coed courses, she said.
Dresselhaus said she had just returned from an international conference in Brazil where the room was packed with people wanting to talk about Summers’ remarks.
In January, Summers touched off a controversy when he told an economics conference that biological differences might account for why men outnumber women in science careers and perform better on math and science tests.
Dresselhaus’ topic of expanding opportunities for women was chosen at ASU’s request.
"The ongoing topic is of real interest to us," said spokesman James Hathaway. He said ASU has long made an effort to boost the number of women in technical fields through its Women in Science and Engineering program.
At ASU, the student breakdown in science, math and engineering undergraduate programs combined is 52 percent women and 48 percent men. "This runs kind of counter to popular perception, certainly in regard to Larry Summers’ remarks," Hathaway said. "But I think basically overall reflects that we have more women than men students."
Dresselhaus, a longtime advocate for women in science and engineering careers, said conditions have improved for women since she was a student.
She studied at Harvard in the 1950s, at a time when women couldn’t take exams in the same rooms as men, she said. She earned her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1958, under an adviser who believed women shouldn’t be in science, she said.
"Whenever he saw me, he would tell me the world was wasting resources on somebody that has no future," she said.
But women who chose math and science fields still face significant obstacles, she said, including the fact they aren’t given the same resources or job assignments. Combining families and careers also is more difficult for women, she said.
What: Mildred Dresselhaus’ talk, "Expanding the Opportunities for Women in Science and Engineering"
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bateman Physical Sciences Center F Wing, Room 166, at ASU’s main campus in Tempe
Cost: Free and open to the public