Wednesday, June 14, 2006

One small step for womankind

You've probably heard of the controversy sparked by Harvard University's soon to be ex-President Lawrence Summers last year over his comments at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. In his speech, he mused that genetics might help explain why fewer women than men reach top scientific posts. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who listened to part of Summers's speech Friday, got up and left. You may recall Nancy was largely responsible for "encouraging" MIT to revisit some of it's hiring practices for women scientists. Public opinion went both ways on Dr. Summers comments although most believed them to to ill-placed. I think we've barely begun to address the social issues impacting women, to say anything about the "genetics" of their success in science.

Apparently in the wake of the uproar, Harvard University set aside $50 million to help women and minority employees. A report has just been issued detailing how the initial few millions will be spent by the new office of faculty development and diversity. As stated in the CNN report:
It includes a 53 percent increase in child-care scholarships, plus other steps such as funding for child-care grants when faculty and staff travel to professional conferences....Harvard also will create university-wide parental leave guidelines, increase by 50 percent its subsidy to six existing day-care centers, and provide more staff and equipment so junior professors can conduct research more efficiently en route to tenure.

By George, I think we're getting it. Finally some tangible progress. I can say from my own experience that having small children with both parents in the scientific field impacts greatly on each one's ability to work the long required hours as well as their ability to travel to important scientific conferences. I've missed seminars and special events because of my spouse's travel/work schedule, which because his position responsibilities often have to take precedent. I think it's encouraging that the new Office has clearly identified child-care as a major factor impacting a woman's ability to maintain competitiveness within her chosen field. Such support will also benefit male scientists as well. So something positive came out of that speech, which might not have garnered much attention had Nancy Hopkins and others not walked out in the middle of it. Will others follow suit?

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