Measured strides in science: Engineering, science still male dominated

November 12, 2007

When the 2007 Nobel Prize winners in science were announced in October, it didn't take a mathematical wizard to calculate the number of women who won the eminent prize in the field of science.


Women and men might wonder: was the shutout because of gender discrimination or innate ability?

"No one wants to be a sexist, but whether we like it or not we make assessments based on all kinds of factors, including gender," said Carol McCord, assistant dean in the Office of Women's Affairs at Indiana University, an office established to provide equal opportunity. "I'm working to help people recognize the stereotype schematics and show people how to overcome the subtle differences in gender bias."

Opportunity is out there, according to several successful women in the fields of science and engineering. But the path to a successful career winds curvily upward and is fraught with many forks in the road.

Sally R. Byrn, who graduated from high school in 1965, said her parents and society offered her two career options-be a teacher or a nurse. She chose the latter and earned a nursing degree from DePauw University. She had no idea that 26 years later she would become a co-founder of SSCI (Solid State Chemical Information), part of Connecticut-based Aptuit Inc., a pharmaceutical company.

SSCI is based at the Purdue Research Park in West Lafayette and employs about 100 people. It provides research and analysis for the pharmaceutical industry that focuses on the characterization and chemistry of solid materials used in drugs.

"When I worked in nursing, my favorite part was being a public health nurse ... because I liked figuring out how to set up a routine to best help a patient in their home," Byrn said. "I really enjoyed looking at something and figuring out a better way to do it. That's what business is [about]."

Byrn, whose husband, Stephen Byrn, is a Purdue University pharmacy professor and the company's co-founder, said it was the desire to put their eight children through college that gave them the motivation to start a business.

"We needed college tuition and my husband was an expert in solid-state chemistry, so we set up a company to teach short courses in the field," Byrn said. "That led to a market for this product, so we set up a laboratory at the Purdue Research Park. Our first employee was our oldest daughter."

Byrn isn't surprised that women still earn about one-third less than men in the scientific field. She said women should understand the rules of business-that the rules were created by men because for so many years they ran businesses.

"Women are not as aggressive as men when it comes to asking for raises," she said. "Women expect to be recognized for contributing to the company and to be rewarded for their hard work, but men will just say 'This is what I'm contributing to the company and this is what I expect.' "

A 'stormy' beginning

Andi Timmerman is a 2002 Purdue atmospheric sciences graduate. When she graduated from high school in 1998, she had no fear of pursuing an education in the sciences. That wasn't the case when she was a second-grader terrified of thunderstorms.

"My mom told me to count the number of seconds between the lightning and thunder and the longer the time, the further away the storm," Timmerman said. That caused her to think about storms in more scientific terms.

Although she doesn't work in meteorolo gy, her degree in science helped her get a job at SSCI as an administrative project manager who calibrates the weight machines used to measure pharmaceutical drugs.

Dr. Mary C. Dinauer, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research at Riley Hospital for Children, went to medical school in the 1970s. While her parents were supportive of her interest in science, society didn't-and still doesn't-perceive it as a standard career path for women, Dr. Dinauer said.

"I went to college thinking I would study English, but I did some course work that was blood-related and got interested in studying a certain enzyme and blood-cell function," said Dinauer, who did her doctoral work at the University of Chicago, residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and a fellowship at Chil dren's Hospital in Boston.

Drawn to engineering

As the director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University, Beth M. Holloway works to encourage and mentor women in another field where women are underrepresented: engineering. She earned both bachelor and master's degrees in mechanical engineering at Purdue.

She worked as an engineer for Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins Inc. for nine years. At the time she served on Purdue's Women in Engineering Industrial Advisory Board mentoring recent engineering graduates-something she really enjoyed. That led to her current position.

As an adviser to women engineering graduates, Holloway sees many young women who lack the negotiating skills necessary to receive higher starting salaries. They also make career choices based on their family status-something that men don't generally do, she says. "Women receive a job offer and they think that is the offer, but men will ask for more just to see if they can get it, and often they do. That differential can make a big difference over the life of a career."

Going boldly forward

After watching "Star Trek" as a child, Linda H. Malkas, who holds the Vera Bradley Chair of Oncology for the Indiana University Medical School, said she wanted to be an astronaut. She credits her father's support for pursuing her interest in science. "I remember being 9 years old and telling my dad I wanted to be a space scientist," Malkas said. "He said, 'Honey, you can do anything.' That ... made all the difference."

Malkas is happy that she followed her dream, but sees fewer women in graduate level science.

IU's McCord agrees.

"We have made progress, but it would be even better to see disciplines have gender equality across the board."
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