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AU Loves Women in Science

Dr. Jo Handelsman discusses White House efforts to increase women scientists

By Patty Housman

Jo Handelsman (center, in blue) with AU students.

Jo Handelsman (center, in blue) with AU students.

Gender equality leads to better science. Yet over and over again, in study after study, women scientists still face significant gender bias in the United States, according to Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Handelsman visited AU last Friday and spoke to a crowd of more than 100 students about the state of women in science today and the White House’s efforts to increase the numbers of women and minorities working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

“We are delighted that Dr. Handelsman accepted our invitation to speak at AU,” said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Although it is important to recognize gender bias wherever we find it, it is especially critical to recognize it in science if our nation is to remain a world leader in the scientific disciplines. As our Women in Science group both recognizes and practices, we must have more women and minorities in science, and in positions of scientific leadership.”


The State of Women in Science

Handelsman praised the sciences at American University, where 69 percent of STEM undergraduates and 61 percent of STEM graduate students are women. However, across the nation, many university science programs look very different from AU. Handelsman described walking into one physics graduate program where every single student in the classroom was male. Faculty members said it was the norm.

Most scientists believe in the concept of meritocracy—if you are better, you will get ahead. Yet this is a flawed concept when it comes to women and minorities in science, said Handelsman. “And as long as we predicate scientific endeavor on a fundamentally flawed concept, we are never going to advance to the levels we need to advance to.” 

Handelsman presented a wide range of studies and data indicating the ways that science is not objective or fair. Women faculty members earn significantly lower salaries. In fact, women across the country in all fields are paid less than their male counterparts. Women scientists are less likely to get mentored. They are less likely to get hired. They are even less likely to get a response to an email sent to a faculty member. And this occurs across universities, departments, and geography—and in both public and private institutions.


Explicit and Implicit Bias against Women Scientists

Handelsman was the lead author of a well-known 2012 Yale University study that asked 127 scientists to review the same job application, which was randomly assigned a male or female name. The study revealed that faculty members consistently scored the male candidate higher and were more likely to hire the man. In addition, both male and female faculty members came to these same conclusions: women were just as likely as men to be biased against other women. 

The study’s results mirrored those of similar studies over the past forty years, said Handelsman. “Even though explicit, or conscious, bias has diminished [in society], implicit, or unintended bias has stayed exactly the same. We still give the advantage to men over women.”


Why We Should Care

The United States needs more scientists to keep us competitive with other nations, said Handelsman. In addition, we need more scientists to keep up with the growth of sectors of the economy that depend on STEM scientists and engineers. To this end, the Obama Administration launched an initiative in 2012 to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate degrees in STEM fields by one million over the next decade. “That’s one-third more STEM graduates than we would otherwise have,” she said.

We also need more women scientists and more diversity in science to provide more intellectual vigor, Handelsman said. “Science will be better if we diversity the scientific community.” Not only are diverse groups more innovative, but they come up with more effective solutions, and they can defend their solutions better. Handelsman pointed to a study that analyzed two groups: one that produced top level publications in the fields of economics and science, and one that generated hit plays on Broadway. The two highly successful groups had one thing in common: diversity. 


The Future

The White House is working to achieve equity in STEM fields by changing classroom teaching, addressing bias by training and discussion, and promoting positive images of science and scientists. Other strategies include blind reviews of articles for science journals, which has showed promise: the proportion of papers published by women goes up by one-third in blind reviews. Training for faculty and students—and tying the training to federal funding—is also in the works. 



Twitter Town Hall

Handelsman’s talk was organized by Women in Science at AU, and was followed by a Twitter Town Hall meeting. Panelists included Handelsman and professors Katie DeCicco-Skinner (biology), Matthew Hartings (chemistry), and Nathan Harshman (physics). They answered questions from the audience and twitter followers, focusing on the role of professors in mentoring and building self-confidence in science students. 

Handelsman ended her day at AU by visiting the physics lab of professor Teresa Larkin and spending time talking informally with students.