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Invisible Women in Science and Technology

Women have always participated in science and technology. However, until recently, as with many other areas of our knowledge tradition, the history of science and technology was blind to women’s contributions—it was largely male and pale (white) (Rossiter, 2012, p. 275). Women such as Evelyn Fox Keller (1983), Betty Toole (1992), and Autumn Stanley (1995) began to document women’s histories in science. A few years later, Wini Warren (1999) recounted stories of black women in science. More recently, Thomas Misa (2010) and Janet Abbate (2012) have documented the histories of women in computing. Leading historian of science Margaret Rossiter (2012) described the event (while a graduate student at Yale in the early 1970s) that inspired her to document women’s achievements:

I asked my Yale professors of the history of science whether there had ever been any women scientists. The emphatic answer was assuredly not. (Even Madame Curie with her two Nobel prizes was discounted as a mere drudge who helped her husband Pierre.) Years later, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University and having found several hundred women in the early editions of the American Men of Science, I pressed on with this topic, determined to write a one-volume survey of women scientists from the beginning, whenever that was, to the recent past. (p. xvi)

Rossiter’s project exploded into what is now a three-volume history of women scientists in America that lays a solid foundation on which future scholars can build. Although much more is needed, Rossiter’s meticulously researched work identifies structural and cultural themes that reveal patterns of women’s ins and outs in technoscience in their historical context. Perhaps the greatest outcome of Rossiter’s work is identifying the ways in which the historical legacy of women’s participation still influences women today.

In Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, Rossiter (1982) chronicles the “series of limited stereotypes, double binds, resistant barriers,” and other “no-win situations” that women historically faced in colleges and universities and demonstrates how historical events (such as World War II) alternatively encouraged women’s participation in education and the professions and then pushed them out (p. xvii). Until the founding of a few women’s colleges, such as Smith (1871), Wellesley (1875), and Bryn Mawr (1885), women only had limited access to higher education. Interestingly, these single-sex learning environments supported the success of women in science just as many contemporary scholars have described: the presence of female role models and mentors; smaller classes; allowing women to talk more; curricular content that is more “female-friendly”; and cooperative peer dynamics (Barker & Aspray, 2006; Rossiter, 1982; Sadker & Sadker, 1995; Warren, 1999).

Access to undergraduate education for African American women was even more circumscribed; segregation forced most to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Like the women’s colleges, the HBCUs were successful in producing women scientists, but their facilities were often underfunded, and professional opportunities for graduates were limited to teaching in HBCUs (Rossiter, 1982). It took many more decades for African American women to have access to doctorates in math and science, and that was also influenced by race. In 1886, Winifred Edgerton Merrill (Columbia University) became the first white woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics, but it wasn’t until 1949 (63 years later) that Evelyn Boyd Granville (Yale University) became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics (Williams, 1999). In 1973 (24 years later), Shirley Ann Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in physics. From 1933 to 1973, these women were two of only ten doctoral firsts among African American women in science (Rossiter, 1995, p. 83). Access was not the only barrier, as Amy Bix’s (2000) history of women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1871 to 2000 shows; women experienced an inhospitable climate that ranged from marginalization to outright sexism even at this elite engineering institution.

In terms of employment, teaching was the primary career path for educated women in the 1880s, and overt gender discrimination led to a 40 percent salary gap between women and men (Rossiter, 1982, p. 5). There was a similar pattern with women scientists at universities, who often taught heavy loads as “volunteer professors” or volunteered as researchers (Rossiter, 1995, p. 141). Although the scarcity of skilled male workers during the war years created tremendous employment opportunities for women scientists, they suffered from openly accepted salary inequities. For example, the US federal government wanted women in certain positions because they could pay them less. In 1938, while the average salary for men in one civil service category was $3,214, women in the same category earned an average salary of $2,299—almost 40 percent less (Rossiter, 1982, p. 235). The gendered salary gap that still exists today is a legacy of this history.

In Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World since 1972, Rossiter (2012) explained how women scientists began to challenge salary discrimination, form their own scientific and technical organizations, and raise funds for projects that “made inroads into a sexist and elitist system,” notably amid major political swings “mostly to the right” (p. xvii). She highlighted the stories of biochemist Sharon L. Johnson, anthropologist Louise Lamphere, and chemist Shyamala Rajender, whose salary discrimination law suits enforced new laws and altered public perception (pp. 31-35). The 1970s were marked by “a slow trickle of firsts,” such as “the first woman hired in any science or engineering college, the first woman in a particular department, the first woman tenured, the first woman full professor, and even the first woman chair or assistant dean” (p. 26). But the demands these trailblazers faced in relation to “inspiring female graduate students” were great: “All too often they too were young, isolated, overworked, and frightened, hiding in their offices, unsure how to set up and run a laboratory, and resentful that on top of everything else they were expected to deal with the unhappy female graduate students—something they did not know how to do and were sure would get them into more trouble if they succeeded and perhaps even if they tried” (Rossiter, 2012, p. 117). These women’s bold efforts toward change consumed “time, money, energy, emotion, and health that in a more perfect universe might have gone into scientific teaching or research” (Rossiter, 2012, p. 39). In fact, many women today juggle similar competing demands.

The legalized segregation that led most African American women in science to stay and teach at HBCUs resulted in more women in more fields, giving them the critical mass they needed to encourage even more women—at least within the HBCUs. This caused HBCUs to become significant contributors to the numbers of women of color in science and engineering. Although “the 103 HBCUs enrolled only 2 percent of the nation’s college students in 1994, together they accounted for 28 percent of the bachelor degrees earned by African Americans,” and “of the eighteen physics departments in the nation that graduated the most women with a BS in physics in 2005, seven were at HBCUs [and] . . . of the African American women who later earned PhDs in science . . . almost half were from the HBCUs, especially the two historically black women’s colleges, Spelman College and Bennett College” (Rossiter, 2012, p. 56).

Between 1970 and 2000, the number of women completing degrees in science and engineering more than doubled for bachelor’s degrees and quintupled for doctoral degrees. But for bachelor’s degrees, the numbers “varied greatly by field” and actually collapsed in computer science (Rossiter, 2012, pp. 41-95). While recent data show a fairly steady increase in women in biology and psychology, the numbers in engineering and computing have not grown at the same pace. One reason for this discrepancy in women’s participation is that biology and psychology were areas in which women had the least resistance historically. Over the 1900s, as more women entered those disciplines, they served as mentors and role models, and they contributed to a growing perception that these might be scientific disciplines where women could thrive. It takes time for women to reach this “critical mass” in a discipline such that their presence begins to contribute to developing a more hospitable climate (Rossiter, 1995).

Another reason is that our gendered assumptions about science and technology influence who participates: “The first term in the following pairs generally correlate with men, and the second with women: abstract/concrete, objec- tivity/subjectivity, logical/intuitive, mind/body, domination/submission” (Estrin, 1996, p. 44). This also informs the hierarchical ranking of academic fields accordingly. Fields such as engineering and computing are viewed as male domains because they are associated with hardness, machines, and abstraction. Fields such as biology and psychology are viewed as female domains because they are associated with softness, nature/people, and concreteness.

The ways in which this has impacted women’s participation are evident in the historical access to some fields (over others) and the numbers of women in these fields today. The most feminized fields (those with the highest numbers of women) are biology and psychology—fields most closely associated with softness, nature, and people. The least feminized fields (those with the lowest numbers of women) are engineering and computer science—fields most closely associated with hardness and machines. In terms of percentages, the most feminized (biology and psychology) and least feminized (engineering and computer science) fields in 1970 remained so in 2000. In fact, psychology and biology accounted “for more than half of all doctorates awarded to women in all fields of science and engineering” (Rossiter, 2012, p. 95).

In 1970, women earned fewer than 2.5 percent of the doctorates in engineering and computer science, and in 2000 that number had only risen to 17 percent (Rossiter, 2012, p. 95). After the dot-com bust of 2000, numbers plummeted for men and women in computing, but women’s numbers dropped off more dramatically (Rossier, 2012, p. 62). Engineering and computing have not reached the critical mass that makes it easier for women to enter and remain, in part due to gendered assumptions about the fields. Evidence that gendered assumptions still influence these fields today can be found in studies showing more women technology majors when the program is titled “computer science” and housed in Colleges of Arts and Sciences (perceived as softer) rather than when the program is titled “electrical engineering” and in Colleges of Engineering (perceived as harder; Cohoon & Aspray, 2006; Margolis & Fisher, 2002).

There is also an obvious hard/soft divide within computing itself— hardware (associated with the machine) and software (associated with people). There are more women software developers than hardware engineers; there are also more women in the people-focused (softer) information end of technology. Janet Abbate (2012) shares the history of women working on the first digital computers—ENIAC in the United States and Colossus in the United Kingdom—demonstrating how “assumptions about the gendered nature of technical skill, about women’s place in the workforce, and about the nature of computing” constrained women’s options and undervalued their contributions (p. 11). The hard/soft divide in computing today was evident among the participants in these two early computing projects, where men typically designed and built the hardware and women programmed the computers. Even though most of the women on both projects had math degrees from universities, there was an even further gender hierarchy on the Colossus project, where programming was defined in two parts: a mathematician (cryptographer) decided what operations the machine should perform, and an operator set up and ran the operations on the computer. All the cryptographers “were men, and all of the operators were women” (Abbate, 2012, p. 20).

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