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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 11 Discovery NewsletterIssue 3 Discovery NewsletterDecember 1999 / January 2000 Discovery NewsletterMontana State University-Bozeman

Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories In Focus


Number of Female Scientists Increasing but Barriers Still Exist


by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Bozeman became a temporary control center for a U.S. spacecraft last month, making it the first time a space mission has been commanded from Big Sky Country.

Judy Franz When Judy Franz was a young mother in the early 1970s, people sometimes asked her how it felt to be destroying the life of her child.

Franz was teaching college physics at a time when only 2 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in the U.S. were held by women.

"There was not one other wife of a male physics faculty member who worked," Franz recalled recently during a lecture at MSU. "I was not just considered strange, but evil," Franz said.

Now an accomplished scientist and head of the American Physical Society, Franz encourages female students to not be deterred from their educational goals by a society that nudges women into accepted career patterns.

"I hope you get the idea that there are a lot of women doing great things," she said as she showed photographs of female scientists like Rita Colwell, who heads the National Science Foundation, and Cynthia Friend, Harvard University's first tenured female chemistry professor.

Today about 40 percent of Ph.D.s in the life sciences are earned by women and 10 percent of Ph.D.s in the engineering and physical sciences are.

"So there has been a steady gain, but it is slow and happened over so many years," Franz said.

Part of the blame rests with academic departments, she said. A 1993 national survey by the American Physical Society showed that both male and female students thought their physics departments were not as supportive as they would like. Only 27 percent of female students and 36 percent of male students said the departments encouraged self-confidence.

To make improvements, APS used a grant from the National Science Foundation to visit 17 universities and offer suggestions. Recommendations included hiring more mainstream female professors to act as role models, having a supportive department head, and creating opportunities for female students to interact with each other, Franz said. Programs that benefit women also tend to benefit the males students in the department, she noted.

While the worst colleges were either unresponsive or hostile toward women, most of the complaints from women in the sciences can be classified as "indignities," Franz continued.

Examples include female students being asked to fill in for secretaries and snide remarks made in front of male faculty who remain silent.

"If these things are repeated, they sap your strength and eat away at you," Franz said. "They still do happen at many, many places."

The head of MSU's physics department, John Hermanson, said the number of students interested in physics is shrinking, so departments must work harder to recruit them. MSU currently has 70 physics undergraduates. Fifteen, or 21 percent, are female.

"We do things to enhance recruitment in general and don't necessarily distinguish between men and women," Hermanson said. "We really work toward affirmative action for all our students."

Franz advised women to develop a set of survival skills, such as finding a support group and mentors. She also recommended developing a thick skin and the ability to recognize that many negative remarks stem from insensitivity rather than cruelty.

"You need to know the difference, that it's not really you but how these people think," she said. "You need to step outside yourself sometimes."

Franz's talk was sponsored by the MSU Science and Engineering for All Project, a gender equity program funded by the National Science Foundation.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the MSU Research Editor.

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