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The New Gender Gap for Women in Science

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Christina Johnson wanted to study plants ever since she became fascinated with her family’s fruit trees as a child, but she came close to abandoning science. At Brigham Young University, where she began college before transferring to Berkeley, she was one of few female science students. “I felt really discouraged trying to do sciences there. People said, ‘You’re a girl, you’re never going to do well in this.’ When she arrived at Berkeley, Johnson, who graduated with a degree in plant biology last spring, was pleased to find as many female students as males at CNR.

She was, in fact, among a record number of female students at CNR. Sixty-four percent of the college’s undergraduates are female, the highest percentage of any college at Berkeley. At the graduate level, 54 percent of CNR students are women, twice the number found in the colleges of engineering and chemistry.

Louise Fortmann, professor of natural resource sociology, remembers when it was much different. When she joined the Department of Forestry in 1984, there were 11 female graduate students. And when she was a student at Cornell in the 1970s, she never had a female professor and once received an invitation to a school event addressed to her and her wife.

Today, microbial biology graduate student Elaine Shapland can’t think of a specific instance of discrimination for being a woman in science. With more women than men in many of her classes, she says women feel more comfortable “jumping into discussions without feeling on-the-spot. And it’s always fun to gang up on the guys.”

Students and faculty say CNR provides a welcoming atmosphere for women, which might explain how it has managed to recruit so many more women than the other sciences. In fact, that influenced Johnson’s choice. “It’s a lot easier for women to decide to study something that other women have been doing. I probably would have had a harder time with the program if there weren’t as many other women,” she says.

Biosciences also offer more female mentors. “If you have women in your department already successful and tenured, you can really visualize yourself there,” says Kathleen Ryan, an assistant professor in plant and microbial biology. Those same female role models, however, sometimes scare women away from following in their footsteps. “Some see how hard we work—every weekend and every night—and they don’t want our life,” Fortmann says.

That may help explain why only 29 percent of CNR faculty are women. Though that’s a slightly higher proportion than at the university as a whole (23 percent) it’s clear that somewhere between starting graduate school and getting jobs, women are falling off of the academic career track.

“A major leak in the pipeline occurs for women just after they get their Ph.D., because it’s a time when they have to consider family formation as well as career,” says Mary Ann Mason, a professor of social welfare, former dean of Berkeley’s Graduate Division, and author of Do Babies Matter? and Mothers on the Fast Track. Mason points out that a survey of all ten University of California campuses found that when women in the sciences have babies, the percentage of those who desire to continue in the academic world plummets from 50 percent to 11 percent.

-Claire Cain Miller

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