Women Share Struggles, Successes in Science

Students at a Women in Chemistry event at CHF.

Students at a Women in Chemistry event at CHF. Photo by Conrad Erb.

Recently, four top female scientists gathered in New York City as part of the World Science Festival to discuss what the New York Times called “their lives as scientists, the joys and struggles of research, and the specific challenges women in science face.” As summarized by the Times, much of the discussion focused on balancing life and career, and the panelists’ answers and suggestions provide a candid look at the cutthroat world of high-level scientific research. Columbia University neuroscientist Joy Hirsch described the pressure, saying, “You have to be tough. You have to be made of steel.” Physicist Elena Aprile, also at Columbia, added, “Titanium is better.”

CHF has been conducting oral histories of women in chemistry and related fields in part to better understand the changes that have occurred in the scientific workplace. Many of these women have seen gradual but dramatic changes, but incredibly, all of the women in our oral history collection who worked in research fields were at some point the only woman in that field.

Mildred Cohn, for example, pursued her PhD in chemistry in the 1930s, much earlier than any of the women who participated in the World Science Festival discussion. At the time, she explained in her oral history, “There was support for graduate students. There were teachings assistantships. But they were not available to women.” Cohn still completed her PhD in 1938, under the direction of Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, but faced sexism throughout her career. She was once told that by a supervisor that “when a woman professional works with men professionals, the men professionals divorce their wives and marry the professional women.” Despite prejudice, Cohn found supportive scientists to work with, and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1982.

The women participating in the World Science Festival discussion also emphasized the importance of institutional support in helping women achieve workplace equality, especially in universities and research centers, where biases can be deeply entrenched. In her oral history, Elsa Reichmanis, former ACS President and scientist at Bell Laboratories, cites Bell as one of those places. When Reichmanis joined the staff in 1978, she says, “It was a very diverse environment. It was not unusual to identify a woman as a research staff member….The environment was one that was much more of an open environment for anyone. The view was that the science that you did and the quality of what you did determined who you were, not what you looked like.”

While every woman’s experience in science is unique, oral histories like Cohn and Reichmanis’ highlight the similarities. There are always struggles to balance the demanding scientific career with a life—often a family life—outside of all-consuming research. There are struggles to prove oneself as a scientist to those who may still believe that woman simply can not do the same job as a man. There are struggles to navigate the often complex career pathways of the scientific world. Over the years these struggles have lessened as more women have become scientists and more scientific research jobs have become welcoming environments in which to work. Like the women who spoke at the festival panel – a discussion which continues at offices and labs around the world – CHF’s Women in Chemistry Oral History Project documents the changing face of science and the stories of individuals who have helped bring about those changes.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF.

Women Atop Their Fields Dissect the Scientific Life [NYT]
Women in Chemistry 2011: A Recap [Periodic Tabloid]
Change Reactions [Chemical Heritage]

Posted In: History | Policy

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