The Science of Success
Continuing obstacles and personal sacrifices haven't kept Jewish women from climbing to the upper rungs of scientific research.
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
When Dr. Roslyn Sussman Yalow graduated from Hunter College with a bachelor's degree in physics, she was unable to find a professor who would hire her as a graduate teaching assistant.
"Jewish women were pretty much unable to get jobs" in science when she was first starting out, in the 1940s. "I had no hopes originally of being able to get a position doing graduate work, since I was a Jewish woman, so I took a secretarial position at Columbia, where I could take courses," she says.
She was eventually accepted by the University of Florida "and tore up my steno books," she says.
Yalow went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1977, for the development of radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones. She has received honorary doctorates from universities on three continents but turned down the Federal Women's Award in 1961, believing that prizes restricted to women imply that they are not competitive in the broader scientific field.
"While there are far more opportunities in science for Jews, it is clear that women are still underrepresented at the top levels of science," she says.
When Thelma Estrin was earning her doctorate in electrical engineering, people frequently asked whether she was studying the subject so that she could help her husband, Gerald, who is also in the field, with his homework.
That was in the 1950s.
And while her daughter, Dr. Deborah Estrin, who at 45 is director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles, hasn't faced such baldly sexist attitudes in her time as a scientist, she has witnessed some of the career-hobbling difficulties that face women who are professional scientists today.
"In my mother's time, a woman being a scientist and mother just wasn't done—it was completely odd and unusual. She was truly part of the pioneering generation," says Estrin, a professor of computer science and the single parent of an 18-year-old son. "By the time I came along, the issues were already very different."
And yet, "many issues remain," she says.
They were starkly illuminated when Harvard President Lawrence Summers, in January 2005, suggested that at least part of the reason for the small number of women on the highest rungs of the science career ladder is biological. His comments ignited a firestorm in the science and academic communities, and in American culture at large.
In his remarks, at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, Summers stated that women were less able to reach science's top ranks for reasons other than socialization and, sometimes, the ability to work the long hours necessary. "There is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population" on things including "height, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability," he said.
His words sparked enormous outcry and media coverage, and five days later, the Harvard president officially apologized without quite admitting that he was wrong. "I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully," Summers wrote in an open letter.
Most of the women interviewed for this article—ranging in age from 34 to 77, in a variety of science and technology fields but all of them doing bench research and at the senior levels of their disciplines—thought Summers' remarks preposterous.
"It's complete nonsense. It's amazing that the president of a university would say something like that," says Dr. Ifat Levy, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University's Center for Neural Science who is studying the activity of brain systems during decision-making in experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Levy earned her bachelor's degree in physics from Tel Aviv University and her Ph.D. from a program for physicists and biologists jointly run by Israel's Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute.
Reflecting the fact that there are far more women at top levels in the life sciences, like biology, but a tiny percentage in physics, mathematics and engineering, Levy says that in her physics program just 10 percent of the students were women, but in neuroscience there are more.
"At high levels you typically find just one or two female faculty in a department of engineering," says Estrin. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website, women constitute 51 percent of the U.S. population and 45 percent of the labor force but account for only 22 percent of employed scientists and engineers.
At the highest levels of accomplishment in science and engineering, the percentage of women is smaller still.
In 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, 18 percent of doctorates in physics were awarded to women, according to Dr. Rachel Ivie, principal research associate at the American Institute of Physics. Even that low percentage is a record high. Just 5 percent of full professors of physics are women, she says.
One of the first shots out of the cannon in this war over women in science was a 1999 MIT committee report stating that just 8 percent of the faculty members at its School of Science were women, a number that had not increased significantly in perhaps 20 years.
The report arose from a private conversation among three tenured women about their professional lives at MIT. When they began to research how many others there were, they discovered that the school's six departments had only 15 tenured women—versus 194 tenured men.
Their proposal said that "unequal treatment of women who come to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, causes them to be accorded less recognition when they do, and contributes so substantially to a poor quality of life that these women can actually become negative role models for younger women....
"There is a perception among many women faculty that there may be gender-related inequalities in distribution of space and other resources, salaries, and distribution of awards and other forms of recognition. Currently, a glass ceiling exists within many departments."
By the time their report was published, the dean had actively tried to redress some of the imbalances, and the percentage of tenured women faculty had reached 10 percent. As of the academic year 200405, 18 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty were women.
Some of the challenges facing women in science and technology are not much different in substance from those facing women in other professions. They include the tug between long work hours and the needs of their families—both child care and, increasingly these days for the sandwich generation, elder care—often-unsupportive spouses, unspoken biases on the part of hiring committees and other higher-ups and, occasionally, overtly offensive situations.
"We've heard from some female graduate students that male grad students still put up posters that wouldn't be allowed in industrial settings," says Ivie.
The scientists interviewed for this article all said that the primary obstacles they face today are as women, rather than as Jews, though some still have a hard time stomaching Christmas trees in the lab.
When Dr. Miriam Feuerman, associate professor of biochemistry at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center, was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, there was a tradition in the molecular biology department of expecting the women at the Christmas party to sit in the lap of a man dressed as Santa. Feuerman found the tradition hard to bear—both as a woman and as a Jew.
"It was inappropriate for a faculty member to sit on the lap of a student. There was boorishness and insensitivity and perhaps a certain amount of ignorance," she says. But then, she adds, the field of molecular biology has had a macho culture, "where you work in the lab 16 hours a day and party all night and then work in the lab 16 hours a day."
It's a culture that mothers can find difficult to navigate, says Feuerman, who is 46 and the single mother of a 3-year-old.
Motherhood and scientific research can prove a challenging mix. Mothering her son "is not a good career move, but it's a good life move," says Feuerman, who is studying gene expression during liver regeneration. "It means that my time in the lab and in the office is now limited." She squirreled away sick time for years so that she had eight months accumulated for maternity leave, though during her time off she supervised graduate students.
NYU's Levy, who is 34 and unmarried, has a friend whose adviser asked her, as she embarked on her Ph.D., "You have three kids—are you sure you can handle this?"
"I'm not sure a man would be asked this, but even so, she was accepted" into the program, says Levy says. In many disciplines, research revolves around chemicals or technology that might harm a fetus, requiring pregnant scientists to take time off from the bench even before the baby is born.
But there's also a bigger conflict at issue. One of the real difficulties for female scientists is that just at the age, the late 20s, when most are earning their Ph.D.s and applying for tenure-track positions, they often start to hear their biological clock ticking.
Many of science's research jobs are in academia. But "the tenure track conflicts with family life," says Dr. Abbe Herzig, assistant professor of educational theory and practice at SUNY Albany and the mother of 5-year-old twins. She did most of her graduate work in mathematics and, until she became pregnant, expected to have a career in that field.
"The tenure clock and the biological clock are going off at the same time, and they're not compatible," Dr. Herzig says. "It's a huge pressure for women in science with families."
"It's become harder and harder to get full-time jobs in research so people do a series of post-docs," says one accomplished scientist, who asked not to be named. "If you want to settle down and have a family, you may be faced with the fact that you have to put in years and years and still not be sure of getting full-time work in a place that you're willing to live. I know some very smart, talented women who say they want a different life." According to Herzig's research, "many women report leaving science because they can't see a way to make family life fit in."
Some scientists have found that postponing marriage, as educated American women tend to do—and Jewish women are more educated, as a group, than American women in general—can interfere with having children.
Embarking on a Challenging Path
Anna Sasson, 18, is just starting college and doesn't need to declare a major yet, but she's already sure what she will choose: bioengineering. That's the science of engineering biology.
Even at her tender age, Sasson has a sense of what she may be up against as a woman in science. She was the only interested girl in an advanced robotics class at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and confronted attempts by male classmates to take over her work.
"Some guys definitely gave me a hard time. Some guy would try to take over my project, saying I couldn't do it," she says. Just three of the class's 30 students were female, and the other girls were there because of scheduling errors. "I would just tell him to back off, and I'd take back the project and do it myself," she said in an interview between classes at the State University of New York's Binghamton campus.
At the start of an Advanced Placement engineering course Sasson took in her senior year at Midwood, almost a third of the kids were girls. But many of the students dropped it, and by the end of the year only three or four girls were left.
"These subject areas are daunting to young women because it's hard to get into, and boys are more willing to fail and get back into it and try again. For a lot of girls, once they fail they don't ever want to do it again," Sasson says. "A lot of boys spend time taking things apart and putting them back together, even blocks in preschool, but soon girls start playing house, which is imaginary—and you can't fail at it."
So how does a young, and Jewish, woman become committed to a career in science and technology?
It all started with her third-grade science teacher. "I had the greatest teacher ever, and he got me interested in hands-on science," Sasson says. That spark was nurtured by her father, a dentist, who bought specimens from science catalogs. "He would order squid and we'd dissect them. I found it completely fascinating, even though no one else liked it."
Sasson's maternal grandparents, both of them engineers, also encouraged her interest by taking her to science museums in new cities they visited. Although her grandmother, who died in 1998, never talked with her about being a woman in science, she herself surely faced challenges as the only woman in her university class to graduate with an engineering degree.
Between Sasson's sophomore and junior years of high school, she was admitted to a selective course just for girls—Smith College's Summer Science and Engineering Program. There, with girls from all over the world, she took classes in robotics and food chemistry. "It was great to be there. We had a lot of fun. In robotics we built robots out of Legos, programmed them and had sumo robot competitions where we put them in a ring to battle it out."
Even as a freshman, Sasson is finding that it's a small population of young women in her field. She's taking calculus, advanced chemistry, introductions to both engineering and technical writing—and comparative Israeli literature.
Most of her classes have an equal number of girls and boys, but in her engineering classes, it's two-thirds male.
While Sasson is having fun being a college freshman and has been to a few parties, "I just can't do that too much—I have too much work. When you meet people here and tell them you're studying bioengineering, they say, 'Sorry to hear that,' because it's such a hard major."
—Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Dr. Nancy Kopell, 63, whose doctorate is in mathematics, is co-director of the Center for BioDynamics at Boston University. She researches the dynamics of the nervous system.
"I didn't get married till I was about 35," Kopell says. "It was one of my goals to have my own children and it just didn't happen," though she was a noncustodial parent of stepchildren.
Dr. Joan Berkowitz was the only woman to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1955. Now 74 and working as a consultant to industrial corporations and as an adjunct professor at the graduate school of the University of Maryland, her bench science work was on solid rocket fuels and rocket nozzle materials.
Although Berkowitz managed to have a child—Maryland law at the time did not permit pregnant women to work around equipment or to work for a month after giving birth, so she had her obstetrician lie about how far along she was and then went back to work, without pay, a week after the baby was born—her daughter, also a scientist, has no plans to have children.
"I don't think she experienced the discrimination I did," Berkowitz says. "I don't think she was handicapped in science the way I was in being a woman. But that's part of the reason that I am not a grandmother."
The challenges—legal, societal and otherwise—facing women who began their careers in science decades ago were remarkable. And the women who overcame them, to make critical contributions to fields as diverse as biology and astronomy, seem to share a certain quality that allowed them to ignore discouraging attitudes. At the time, women who were driven to succeed in science didn't feel that they had much choice.
Dr. Vera Rubin, 77, is an astronomy pioneer, mother of four children—all of whom are now scientists with Ph.D.s—and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Science. Rubin currently works as a senior fellow in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
She wrote her master's thesis on the large-scale motion of galaxies, a topic that had not before been addressed, while pregnant at Cornell University. A supervisor told her that the paper should be presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting, but since she would have a new baby, he'd give it in his own name.
She and her husband, with their first child just 3 weeks old, had no car. So her parents drove to Ithaca, N.Y., from Philadelphia, picked them up and took Rubin to the meeting. Her presentation prompted pandemonium in the hall, she says, and the next day there was a front-page article in the Washington Post headlined "Young Mother Finds Center of Creation."
Rubin married science and motherhood in part by selecting problems that other people were not working on, and problems that she could work on independently.
"I discovered early in my career that I didn't like competing and had a family and didn't want to compete with people who had lots of telescope problems."
While working on her Ph.D. thesis—a mathematical model of how galaxies are distributed in space—Rubin would take care of her children from 6 a.m. until she put them to bed at night. Then she'd work on her thesis from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m.
Several years later, she asked for a job at the Carnegie Institution. Her children ranged in age from 5 to 15, and when she had to pick them up from school, she'd leave. "Occasionally I'd have the greatest astronomer in the world on the phone and would have to go. I don't even remember their comments," she says.
She was the first woman to work at Carnegie, she says, and to this day there are few other women on staff. Even without motherhood in the equation, female scientists today still encounter anti-woman attitudes at work. Feuerman was the first female faculty member ever hired on a tenure track in her department, in 1990. On one of her first days there, as she was trying to rid her office of outdated equipment, a male colleague said, "You hire a woman and the first thing she does is move the furniture."
Her reaction? "I just kept on moving," she says. Many things haven't changed much in the 15 years since then. Today there are just two tenured women in her department, and seven men.
Once, when Kopell was a young researcher invited to lecture at a major university, the whole department hiring committee showed up, even though she hadn't applied for a job. She went to a party in her honor that night, and one search committee member, a bit drunk, told her that they had come to hear her talk in order to say they'd fulfilled the school's affirmative-action requirements. "He told me they had to fill out a form saying how many women they intended to hire in the next five years and that they proudly filled out zero zero zero."
When Herzig was a mathematics graduate student in her late 30s (most are in their 20s), she overheard two male professors discussing "if I'd make tenure before menopause."
She also says that she was physically pushed aside by a professor who wanted to see what was on the bulletin board she was reading, "as if I wasn't even there." Another professor regularly scratched his genitals when she was talking with him.
Herzig brought these incidents up at a meeting of a faculty committee to which she was a student representative. Even there, she says, they were dismissed as inconsequential. "Every example I gave they said was an isolated incident. I asked how many isolated incidents it takes to make data," she says. "This is yet another example of the negative culture which female scientists face."
Affirmative action for women and people of color has been an issue in science for years. Although there has been some change, it has not been enough, say the women interviewed. Several prestigious colleges have summer science programs just for high school girls, and MIT, for one, annually sends out female engineering students to speak at high schools to encourage other young women to follow them into the field.
But some say that these efforts still fall short.
"There's a lot of discussion about the small numbers of women and cursory efforts to attract more, but when they don't succeed, the people in charge pat themselves on the back and say, 'Well, we tried,' " Herzig says. "There isn't a real serious focus on the degree to which there are very real obstacles to women."
She ended up leaving mathematics as a doctoral student when she was pregnant with her twins and earned a Ph.D. in education instead, largely because of the anti-family, anti-woman attitudes she experienced from colleagues in math. "As much as I believe I could have made a significant contribution, it's just not how I want to spend my life. It's not just a question of can you do the proofs and perform on the exams. When you're getting all these messages that you don't belong, it's a huge obstacle."
In some disciplines, like physics and math, "there's a lot of macho posturing," says the scientist who asked not to be named. "If you don't have to put up with that, why would you? It doesn't mean you don't have the talent, but maybe you're not interested in doing that. Women faced with lots of choices may want to live a different kind of life."
On the other hand, says Kopell, who was awarded a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 1990, being a woman in a field with few others has allowed her work to garner more attention than it might otherwise have received—"and I'm sure that opened up other opportunities."
But in general, as surveys of women in science continue to make clear, the progress has not been sufficient to create sex parity in the research laboratory, where professional advancement and pay for women continue to lag. Says Estrin, "Societal changes have slowed, if not regressed. It's hard to bring women into the field, and it has a lot to do with the socialization they get as young girls and what we do to engage them. You have to start an engineering education as a freshman. You have to have made that decision in high school. I don't think we're getting to the young women early enough.
"They're doing well enough in math and science, but we haven't engaged them in thinking about these fields," she says.
Berkowitz says, "I hear young women saying the same things we did 30 years ago. They still have the same problems. They still haven't been solved."
Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes regularly for
The Jewish Week and the
New York Times.
Israel's Women of Science
While many women are scaling the ladder of scientific research in the United States, a number of women are also making their mark in Israel's scientific community. Here are some of the women who are working at the Weizmann Institute of Science
, one of the preeminent research facilities in the world.Prof. Ruth Arnon
of the Institute's Department of Immunology has spent close to 30 years investigating the processes by which the immune system malfunctions and causes devastating illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. The result: the drug Copaxone®, which has transformed the treatment of MS and alleviated the suffering of many patients. Prof. Arnon is currently developing synthetic, nasally administered flu vaccines that would be effective for years against a broad range of flu strains.Prof. Hadassa Degani
and her team at the Weizmann Institute of Science's Biological Regulation Department research the development of cancerous tumors. This research led to the development of a diagnostic imaging technique called 3TP (Three Time Point), which makes use of existing MRI scanners and a safe contrast agent that is injected into the patient. The technique is already being used in the detection of breast and prostate cancers, and enables doctors to distinguish between malignant tumors and benign lumps by scanning instead of cutting, thus sparing many patients the pain and risk of biopsies. 3TP has been cleared for use in the United States, Canada, and the European Community.Prof. Tamar Flash
of the Computer Science and Applied Mathematics Department at the Weizmann Institute focuses on motor control in humans and robotic systems. This research combines experimental work in human subjects with the development of mathematical models concerning motion planning and control strategies by the brain. Her studies include motor learning in humans and the development of learning capabilities for robotic systems.Prof. Shafi Goldwasser
of the Weizmann Institute's Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics has developed a method using "random coin tosses," which quickly determines whether a number is prime or not. Previously, a number's primality could be decided rapidly and with high probability, but without certainty. Prof. Goldwasser's method uses the "coin tosses" to perform a rapid, random search for proofs of primality. Her method, which applies elliptic curve theory (the branch of mathematics used to solve the renowned Fermat's Last Theorem), now offers a running supply of prime numbers, which are needed for various applications in the fields of cryptology and decryption.Prof. Michal Schwartz
of the Institute's Department of Neurobiology studies the critical role of the immune system in processes of maintenance and recovery from injuries and disorders of the central nervous system (CNS). Prof. Schwartz and her group have shown that the innate immune response, if well controlled, can promote the post-traumatic process of healing in CNS axons. Research in her laboratory is currently focused on several areas, including seeking optimal peptides to be used in post-traumatic vaccination for spinal cord injury; applying the therapeutic approach of protective autoimmunity to other neurological disorders; understanding the mechanism of protective autoimmunity at the immunological, molecular, and cellular levels; and optimizing the route of vaccination for glaucoma.
In addition, the Institute established the Weizmann Women & Science Award in 1994 to honor an outstanding woman scientist in the United States who has made a major contribution in science, technology, or engineering. The objective of the biennial award is to advance the cause of women in science and to provide a role model to motivate and encourage the next generation of young women scientists.
Jewish Women who Won The Nobel Prize in the Sciences, Or Should HaveGerty Radnitz Cori
The first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, Cori was born in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish family. She converted to Catholicism in order to marry Carl Cori whom she met at the University of Prague when they were both in medical school. The two, who emigrated to the United States in 1922, had an extraordinary professional partnership that led to remarkable discoveries in the realm of enzymes and hormones. In 1947, they won the Nobel for biochemistry in 1947 "for discovering the enzymes that convert glycogen into sugar and back again to glycogen," a key for understanding diabetes. The lab they established at Washington University in St. Louis ultimately produced six Nobel prize winners, in addition to themselves. At a time when anti-Semitism and anti-women attitudes were rampant in scientific circles, the Coris hired both Jews and women. In the last 10 years of Gerty Cori's life, when she was ill with a disease that required frequent blood transfusions, she nevertheless identified four glycogen storage diseases in children that opened up the study of the entire field of genetic diseases. (Source: Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries
, Second Edition by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.)Gertrude Elion
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, this New York City born scientist, struggled to find a research position position when she graduated with a master's degree in chemistry from NYU in 1941. Finally, with male scientists entering the service, she was able to get a position as a food chemistry analyst with Quaker Maid Company, measuring the acidity of pickles and the mold levels on fruit. Her break came when she applied for a position at pharmaceutical company Burroughs Welcome and was interviewed by Dr. George Hitchings. Impressed with her intelligence, he hired Elion as a lab assistant. They would share the Nobel 44 years later (with Sir James W. Black) for "the discovery of important principles of drug treatment." Elion developed the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made kidney transplants possible, the first effective anti-viral medication, as well as treatments for lupus, malaria, hepatitits, arthritis, gout and other diseases. She was a mentor and role model to many and worked avidly to encourage women in science. (Source: Jewish Women's Archives' on-line exhibit on Gertrude Elion at jwa.org.
)Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
Though discouraged from becoming a physicist because of her religion and her sex, this native of the Bronx was offered a place in the graduate program at the University of Illinois when the World War II draft left a vacancy. At Illinois, She met and married fellow physicist Aaron Yalow and completed her PH.D. The couple returned to New York where it proved much easier for her husband to obtain a research job than herself. Finally, she obtained a position at the VA hospital where she partnered with physician Solomon Berson to investigate the safe use of radioisotopes in humans. Their experiments led to the discovery of radioimmunoassay, a way of measuring substances such as hormones, viruses and chemicals using radioisotopes. The mother of two, Yalow came home every day to prepare lunch for her children and dinner every evening. She often returned to her lab at night to continue her research and usually worked sixty to eighty hours a week. She received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1977. (Source: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
, article by Emily Taitz.)Rosalind Franklin
When James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962, no one credited this British crystallographer, for the crucial role she played in the discovery of DNA. Franklin, who had died 4 years earlier, at 37 of ovarian cancer, (probably triggered by her many years of working with radiation), took the X-Ray photographs that revealed the double-helical structure of DNA. She was beaten to publication after Wilkins showed one of her unpublished photos to Watson and Crick. A scientist of the first note, she authored or co-authored 37 scientific papers, and was respected for her work on virology and coal.Lise Meitner
Physicist Lise Meitner, born in a Viennese Jewish family, was the first woman in Germany to hold the title professor and for 20 years headed the Physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. An earlier conversion to Protestantism notwithstanding, she was forced to flee Germany in 1938 under threat of Nazi imprisonment. Settling in Sweden, she maintained a correspondence with her collaborator, German scientist Otto Hahn. Using his description of laboratory findings, she identified atomic fission, the pivotal discovery that would ultimately unleash the power of the atom. In 1945, the Swedish Academy overlooked Meitner's crucial role in this important discovery when it awarded the Nobel Prize to Hahn.