Women in Chemistry — Part of the 51% Minority

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Women in Chemistry: Part of the 51% Minority

by Ana Berta Chepelinsky, Victoria Franchetti-Sicignano, Marian Lowe, Nancy Tooney, & Martha Verbrugge

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 4, July 1972, p. 4 – 8

In a country where over one half of the population are women, why are only 9% of chemists women? Why do women constitute only 4.2% of all physicists and 0.8% of all engineers? Are we dealing here with those mythical natural interests and capabilities of women? Is the reason irrational discrimination, or is it perhaps a more pervasive social force? Certainly the practice and pattern of discrimination can be well documented in the sciences, but the real problem is indicated by the fact that there really are not that many women who enter science to be discriminated against. Women are excluded in general from the higher paying, “high status” jobs in this culture. The socialization of women tells them that their place is in the home, that their purpose in life is to marry and to raise children. On the other hand, economic reality forces almost all women to work at some point in their lives and at the present time 40% of the women in this country work. Women in our capitalist society form a cheap, flexible labor pool as well as being responsible for all of the unpaid labor in the home. The socialization process assures that women are basically untrained for anything but menial, mind dulling, uncreative jobs. They are not considered to be true members of the work force and are easily drawn in and out of the job market as demand changes. It is in the interest of the economic structure to maintain the present attitudes toward women. The availibility of such a group helps keep business costs down and profits up. We wish to focus here on the mechanisms by which women are kept “in their place” using chemistry as an example.


One can isolate a number of sociological and psychological forces which channel women away from higher education and away from careers. Each kind of pressure, whether subtle or overt, arises from this society’s stereotype of character and roles for women and is reinforced by the need to keep women as a cheap labor force. The chronology is probably familiar to most professional women. The American girl grows up in an environment, both at home and at school, that molds her into a sweet, submissive, agreeable form. It confirms the belief that a woman’s proper and natural spheres are domestic and maternal. On the other hand, boys are encouraged toward aggressive, independent, and ambitious behavior and are surrounded by images and actualities of the active adult male. In their early school books, on television shows and ads, and in the home, young girls are bombarded by images of what they are expected to be. For example, in a survey of ads for chemistry sets, investigators found that most pictures showed young boys experimenting, with invisible ink and magic solutions. There was only one picture of a girl… making lipstick. By the nature of these social models and prejudices, young girls are not encouraged to develop the traits of the scientist, such as self reliance, inquisitiveness, creativity, or analytical ability. As Rossi notes, “If we want more women to enter science… some quite basic changes must take place in the ways girls are reared. A childhood model of the quiet, good, sweet girl will not produce many women scientists or scholars, doctors, or engineers.”1

This channeling process intensifies during secondary and college level education. The ambivalence grows, as the possible conflict between personal interests and social expectations becomes more marked. This pressure is reflected in statistics for high school and college graduates and for advanced degrees. For example, Epstein points out that “although there are more girls than boys in high school graduation classes, more boys than girls graduate from college.”2 And although drop-out rates are similar, “boys are more likely to leave because of academic difficulties or personal adjustments,” while girls leave to marry. But then, this is what is expected and thus almost imposed upon women. As Weisstein notes, American women are defined as “inconsistent, emotionally unstable, lacking in a strong conscience or superego, weak, ‘nurturant’ rather than intelligent, and if they are at all ‘normal’, suited to the home and the family… (However) In a review of the intellectual difference between little boys and little girls, Eleanor Macoby has shown that there are no intellectual differences until about high school, or, if there are, girls are slightly ahead.”3

A young woman is discouraged from being intelligent or “over-educated” since this economic investment would only make her unmarriagable. After all, “what a man does defines his status, but whom she marries defines a woman’s.”4 As many women scientists will acknowledge, they were especially discouraged from entering science or engineering because these fields are viewed as being beyond women’s mental capacities, are incompatible with desirable, womanly attributes, and in the long run, are unproductive for women. Distribution in undergraduate degrees reflects the success of this channeling: men receive almost 9/10 of the degrees in the physical sciences and about 3/4 in biological sciences and mathematics, while women generally choose education, English, and foreign languages. Weisstein concludes that “in light of social expectations about women, what is surprising is not that women end up where society expects they will; what is surprising is that little girls don’t get the message that they are supposed to be stupid until high school; and what is even more remarkable is that some women resist this message even after high school, college, and graduate school.”5 Interestingly, many of the women who have “made-it-through” are either foreign born or are first-generation American. This can be accounted for by the differences between the channeling of middle-class European women and American women.

If a woman successfully challenges these myths and traditions, and enters a graduate school, she encounters another set of barriers. As Epstein suggests, a profession is a microscopic society that depends on “the mutual understanding among its practitioners” and on conformity to “shared norms and attitudes”. First, Epstein writes, “the sponsor-protege or master-apprenticeship may inhibit feminine advancement in the professions. The sponsor is most likely a man and will tend to have mixed feelings, among them a nagging sense of impending trouble, about accepting a woman as a protege. Although the professional man might not object to a female assistant—he might even prefer her—he cannot identify her as someone who will eventually be his successor. He will usually prefer a male candidate in the belief that a woman has less commitment and will easily be deflected from her career by marriage and children… Even if she serves an apprenticeship, the woman faces serious problems in the next step in her career if she does not get the sponsor’s support for entree to the inner circles of the profession… He may feel less responsible for her career because he assumes she is not as dependant on a career as a man might be.”6

Epstein also notes that women are often excluded from the informational interactions and means of recognition which are essential to advancement. And unfortunately, “the only possible antidote for the familiarity and lineage which oil the wheels in professional environments is power through rank, seniority, money… women do not often have any of these defenses.” The elitism of the professions is evident from Epstein’s analysis, but she does show the overwhelming male domination of our present society.

If all of these social pressures fail to discourage a particularly obstinate woman, there is always outright, old-fashioned discrimination to fall back on. Incredible as it seems, loud cries of denial still go up from academics and industry people when this question is raised. However, a rather superficial look at the situation is enough to make the point.


Hiring policies and practices in universities are discriminatory. Most American universities which grant Ph.D’s do not have any women chemistry faculty. From a study of 172 schools with a total of 3925 Ph.D faculty members, only 90 were women, or 2.3%. Of these, 39 (or 43%) were of subprofessorial rank (instructor, research associate, etc.).7 If there were no discrimination, about 6.3% of all faculty members in chemistry would be women (since 91% of women with Ph.D’s were working in the last decade and 6.9% of Ph.D’s in high-ranked schools in chemistry were women.8 As a striking example one might consider the top five departments of chemistry, which grant 6.9% of their Ph.D’s to women. Top universities are training Ph.D women, but they are not hiring them:

  1. Harvard          0.00% women faculty
  2. Cal Tech         0.00% women faculty
  3. Berkeley         0.00% women faculty
  4. Stanford          0.00% women faculty
  5. MIT                 0.00% women faculty

Women are in less “prestigious” universities, colleges, and junior colleges. Of those privileged enough to be employed in top schools, 43% are placed in the lower echelons of university ranking.

If any doubt remains as to whether basic attitudes and hiring decisions are discriminatory, the results of a study involving the chairmen of graduate departments of a physical science discipline in colleges and universities will offer conclusive evidence. If a man and woman of equal qualifications apply for the same position on a faculty, the man is more likely to be hired. If a woman with superior qualifications is among the applicants (with men of average qualifications) she is seriously considered for the position, however with reservation. Important factors to be taken into account are her marital status, number of children, husband’s occupation, and of course, her compatibility with the male faculty.9 That discrimination does exist on the hiring decision level is evident.

If a woman surpasses the barriers of hiring attitudes, is she then treated with equality with regard to salary? On the professorial level in all colleges and universities in the United States in 1965-66, the median annual salary for men was $12,768, and for women $11,649. The gap narrows as one goes down the ladder of prestige, but is there at all levels.10 The same inequality appears in promotions. The study by the Committee on Education and Labor in the House of Representatives concluded that promotion possibilities for women in universities are worse than for men. The proportion promoted is lower at all ranks studied and for all time periods studied (1920-40, 1950-69).

Since the proportion of women professionals married to men in the same field is very high, the question of nepotism policies in universities becomes important. Many women in this category whose husbands hold university positions are employed as lecturers (sometimes without pay), research associates or forced to find positions in other departments or different (often “inferior”) institutions. In a study of the University of California at Berkeley, most women in such a situation felt that their talents were not fully utilized and that they were qualified for regular positions on the Berkeley faculty. Some of their husbands comments are rather instructive: “I presume that the University nepotism rules bar her employment here, and so she is consigned to a job vastly inferior in all ways, though her qualifications are equal or superior to my own… and better than many of the people the department does hire.” Or “She is employed here, at a lower level than in her previous position and in a temporary position… She has no facilities for research or support for research here and is forced to use my lab, where she has an established reputation as an independent investigator.” Wives with B.A.’s and M.S.’s or M.A.’s are affected by nepotism in many ways: in the Berkeley study, some could not be appointed as lecturers in their husband’s fields, though uniquely qualified; several could not be hired as secretaries or researchers even with excellent training and qualifications. More frequently, however, wives were found working as unpaid research or editorial assistants for their husbands.


Although less specific information is available on employment of women chemists outside universities, the same trends are apparent. Women are found in lower ranking positions in both industrial and government laboratories. For example, 75% of the women employed by the National Institutes of Health are in ranks of GS9 or below, and no women are in the two highest ranks, GS16 and 17.11

Recruiters for industrial positions tend to look for men for the positions offering permanence and good opportunities for advancement. Even when women are hired, promotion is slower. Women are less likely to “advance” into management. Only 6% of the women in natural sciences are found in management while 24% of the men in science are working in managerial positions.12 Starting salaries for women in the chemical industry are slightly lower than those of men and the gap appears to increase with length of employment. Chemical and Engineering News did a study of chemists’ salaries in the fall of 1968, which showed that, with seniority held constant, women with Ph.D’s made less than men with only B.A.’s. Fringe benefits are often less inclusive for women than for men. In addition, married women often hold a second full-time (unpaid) job as housekeeper. Women with children are particularly handicapped by the lack of adequate child care facilities.


Grants and awards are of crucial importance in the professional development of scientists under the present system. What is surprising is that women scientists are as productive as their male colleagues in spite of the fact that they have more difficulty in obtaining support for their research. The problems encountered by women in this area are shown by a recent study of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation, “In the Senior Postdoctoral Fellowship competition recently held by the NSF, 14 of the 395 applicants were women. Fifty-four grants were awarded—none went to women. In a pilot study of grants and awards given by the NSF to university researchers in a physical science discipline for the years 1964-68, women were only awarded less than 0.03% of the grants although they comprise 5 to 8% of the scientists in the discipline. Furthermore, the mean dollar value of the awards received by women was smaller than that of those received by men.”13 Similar discrimination is shown in the awarding of NIH grants, “Of Postdoctoral and Special Fellowship applications made to NIH in 1970, the rate of disapproval was higher for women than for men. The disapproval rate for men was 38.8% compared with 55.7% for women. The discrepancy was even greater in the disapproval rates for applicants for the Research Career Development Awards for one NIH Institute over the years 1949-1965. Only 21.9% of the men were turned down while 70.8% of the women applicants were rejected. In 1970, women were only 2.5% of the NIH Study Panels which review grant applications.14 In addition, the representation of women on advisory panels of the NIH and other agencies is not anywhere near the actual proportions of women in the scientific fields. As pointed out by Lewin and Duchin,15 “similarly, out of the 827 Sloan Research Fellowships that have been awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Research Foundation over the past 16 years, only one or two women were among the recipients.”


Though faced with the facts, many people would still deny that the above is real proof of discrimination against women, but only a result of the various characteristics of women in the job market which make them impossible to accept as serious, dedicated and qualified workers. One of the most durable myths is that it is useless to hire or train women since they only marry and leave. Statistics show that women can be expected to remain on the job about the same number of years as men, regardless of educational level. As an example, 91% of the women who received Ph.D.’s in 1957-1958 were employed in 1964. Of these, 80% had not interrupted their career during that period of time.16 Another stereotype is that women professionals are less productive than men. According to a study, there are no differences in the productivity of men and women scientists.17 This is despite the fact that women are discouraged in their professional life and placed in positions which indicate their so-called incapability of competing with men. Furthermore, our culture defines women as incapable of abstract thought. In all doctoral fields, a study has shown that women receiving the doctorate are brighter than their male counterparts.18 However satisfying this may seem to those who have Ph.D.’s, it is a discouraging fact. For a woman to succeed she must be brighter than her male colleagues, must work harder and still face the fate of seeing her efforts and talents oftentimes remain underutilized or unrewarded.

Then there is the “superwoman” stereotype. Women who do succeed are seen as “different” from other women. The woman who manages to get by the socialization barriers and to find a job in spite of discrimination may do so at a great psychological price. She may fall victim to the “superwoman” syndrome, attributing her success to her own superior capabilities and perserverance. She implicitly accepts that a woman must “Prove herself” by demonstrating far greater capability than a man for the same recognition. Having joined the elite, she does not see women’s problems as societal ones, but as personal ones. She accepts the society’s rhetoric that every woman who is truly competent and determined can succeed.

One can write, then, convincing critiques of the social and psychological pressures that discourage women from entering science and other professions. One can also make endless surveys of facts and cases that show the extensive discrimination that women face if they somehow “make it through” to a career. However, the treatment of women is fundamentally tied to the structure of our society. The mere recognition of problems will not resolve them. Nor can one depend on the Goodwill of societal institutions or on the promises of government to produce change. Industrial directors will not spontaneously, out of some humane insight, abandon their discriminatory practices; if the change is not profitable, why make it? Neither will the action (or more precisely, the pronouncements) of the government be anything but pacifiers for dissatisfied women. HEW is, for example, apparently easing up on even the most villainous institutions. Social change requires social mobilization, or some organization of people, ideas, and tactics. Discrimination against women must be fought wherever it occurs. However, the complete liberation of women will require a basic change in every aspect of the society, from the economic structure to the nuclear family. Sexist attitudes and practices will begin to collapse only when the victims, the women themselves, get together to define the problems and exert strong and visible pressure for radical social change. As our sisters demanded in the 19th century newspaper, The Revolution:

Principle, not policy; Justice not favors —
Men, their rights and nothing more;
Women their rights and nothing less.


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  1. For a more complete discussion of the role of women in a capitalist society, see Margaret Benston, “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation,” Monthly Review, Sept., 1969.
  2. C.F. Epstein, Women’s Place: Options and Limits in Professional Careers, Univ. of Calif. Press, Berkeley, 1970, p. 56.
  3. N. Weisstein, “Kinder, Kuche and Kirche” in Sisterhood is Powerful,ed. by Robin Morgan, Vintage Books, 1970.
  4. A. Rossi, Science, May 28, 1965, p. 1201.
  5. N. Weisstein, “Kinder, Kuche and Kirche” in Sisterhood is Powerful,ed. by Robin Morgan, Vintage Books, 1970.
  6. Epstein, ibid., p. 169.
  7. Chemical and Engineering News, May 10, 1971, p. 21.
  8. Science, 172, 1281 , 1971.
  9. A. Lewin and L. Duchin, Science, 173, 892, 1971.
  10. These figures and the information in the remainder of this section were taken from: Discrimination Against Women: Hearings by the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, 1970.
  11. Extramural Forum of NIH, May 26, 1971.
  12. R.H. Bolt, in Women and the Scientific Profession, ed. by Matt Seld and Van Aken, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965, p. 145.
  13. A. Lewin and L. Duchin, Science, 173, 892, 1971.
  14. Extramural Forum of NIH, May 26, 1971.
  15. A. Lewin and L. Duchin, Science, 173, 892, 1971.
  16. P. Graham, Science, 769, 1284, 1970.
  17. R. Simon, S. Clark, K. Galway, Soc. Prob., 73, 221, 1967.
  18. H.S. Astin, The Woman Doctorate in America, Russell Sage, 1969.