Notes from an Interview with Madeleine Joullie

Notes from an Interview with Madeleine Joullie

Madeleine Joullie

Madeleine Joullie

Madeleine Joullie earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and stayed at Penn for the rest of her career. She also played a key role in changing the culture of Penn to embrace equality for women. One of her current leadership roles is serving on CHF’s board of directors. This article is adapted from a talk Joullie gave at the University of Wisconsin.

Madeleine Joullie made the long trip to America from her home in Brazil just after the end of World War II. Beginning in 1946, she studied chemistry at Simmons College, a women’s college in Boston. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree, she came to the University of Pennsylvania and was surprised to find sex discrimination.

Though the classes themselves were not segregated when Joullie arrived at the Penn, there was still a college for women and a college for men.

“The classes were mixed, but the grade sheets were separated,” Joullie says. “In principle there were two colleges. In some classes I was the only woman.”

Upon graduation Joullie became the first woman to join the Penn chemistry faculty, and she was also the first female organic chemist to be appointed to a tenure-track position in a major American university. She was named a full professor in 1974 and took on the additional responsibility of being one of the first affirmative action officers at Penn.

“I served in that role for seven years, without help, extra pay, or teaching relief,” Joullie says. “It was not a pleasant job, but it did produce results. The School of Arts and Sciences was so successful with their affirmative action program that I was then asked by the provost to chair the Council for Equal Opportunity to oversee the affirmative action programs of all the schools at Penn.”

“Today Penn is totally integrated.” she says. “Many department chairs are women, and we have our second woman as president.”

Why the scarcity of women in science?

Joullie comments that women and other minorities have made gains in academic access and achievement over the years, but she describes progress as uneven.

“More women than men earn a bachelor’s degree, but their numbers decrease as they pursue higher degrees,” she says. “Physics is less attractive to women than chemistry or biological sciences at every level.” She notes a disturbing parallel trend in postdoctoral fellowships: fewer women than men have received postdoctoral fellowships in recent decades. It is also clear that twice as many post docs are temporary residents than are citizens.

Joullie mentions an article that recently appeared in American Scientist, titled “When Scientists Choose Motherhood” (March-April 2012 vol. 100 #2 pg. 138 ff), that addresses the scarcity of women in science.

“Although the title sounds patronizing, the authors present solid explanations of why the choice to become a mother is such an important factor in the progress of a scientific career,” she says. “The requirement of long hours for advancement, also known as the hour-glass ceiling, is a major impediment to advancement. This attitude affects both men and women and in my opinion has no place in a rational society.”

Are Role Models Necessary?

Joullie states that another common explanation for the scarcity of women in science is the lack of role models—though she also notes that some women have been successful without role models, most notably double Nobel laureate Marie Curie.

“Madame Curie was often asked how it is possible to reconcile family life with a scientific career” says Joullie. “Her answer was: ‘Well, it has not been easy.’ Still today, it is not that easy.” However, notes Joullie, Curie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband received the Nobel Prize for their discovery of artificial radioactivity, and Curie’s other daughter Eve was a well-known writer and journalist.  Both had a powerful role model in their mother.

Curie had the challenging task of balancing motherhood with the demands of a scientific career—a challenge that remains for women today.

“The combination of professional success and parenting is still difficult today,” she says. “While you are told you can have it all, this may be true, but only under certain conditions that only you can determine.”

Looking Ahead

Joullie mentions that the history of the Nobel Prize shows both the historical disparity between men and women, and the fact that today more women are achieving at the top of their fields.

A total of 44 women have won Nobel Prizes, with fifteen winning in the Peace Category, twelve literature prizes, ten in physiology or medicine, four in chemistry, two in physics and one Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Of the 44, 30 prizes were awarded between 1901 and 2000. In the current century fourteen women have already won the Nobel Prize with five winners in 2009.

Between 1964, when Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgson received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and 2009, when Ada Yonath received it, the number of female Ph.Ds in chemistry in the United States went from 5% in the early 1960s to almost 40% in 2009.

Joullie notes that the American Chemical Society recently introduced a new award to recognize women both in academia and industry. “This is a tribute that was way overdue and is positive,” she says.

“As we begin a new century, it is time for women to assert themselves as individuals rather than emulate men. We should realize that the rules we follow were designed by white men centuries ago. By being leaders rather than followers, we should create an environment in which success does not relate simply to the hours we spend at work.”

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