Researchers Meeting at AAAS Urge Expanding Role for Women in Nanoscience

Research institutions and funding bodies should promote efforts to recruit women into nanoscience so that their talent and perspective can help drive a new era of scientific advances, said a group of women researchers meeting at AAAS. They convened to see the first data presented on women’s representation in nanoscience, which many believe will bring huge advances in fields ranging from energy to medicine.

Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom

Women make up about one-fifth of faculty at NSF-funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers, according to research presented at the meeting. That’s slightly more than in engineering or the physical sciences, but the consensus was that it’s much too low. Speakers and participants warned that without more women engaged in the field, nanoscience might not reach its full potential.

“This is not just about the number of [female] participants but also about what the field becomes and what problems it is mobilized to address,” said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS and a participant at the workshop.

Psychologist Suzanne Brainard, who helped organize the meeting, said findings presented to the group generated crucial questions: What should women in nanoscience be striving for? How can they increase their numbers? How can they increase funding?

Suzanne Brainard [Photo © Suzanne Brainard]

Suzanne Brainard
[Photo © Suzanne Brainard]

“From the findings, we go forth with a proposal to look at the questions that are coming out here,” Brainard said afterward. She hoped the meeting would help to “target a much larger group and hopefully to have either a network or even a formal society for female scientists,” one of the missing pieces identified at the meeting.

Brainard is the executive director for the Center for Workforce Development at the University of Washington in Seattle, which along with AAAS organized the meeting under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Thirty participants representing mostly engineering and the physical sciences, along with a few social scientists, met 12-13 May at AAAS in Washington, D.C.

There was no doubt among the participants that nanoscience would benefit from having more women. They stressed that nanotechnology presents tremendous possibilities for innovations with societal impacts, like medicine and materials research. If women are not adequately represented, they said, the field might not be addressing the full scope of problems it has the power to solve. Christine Marie Berkhout’s 1923 discovery of the fungus responsible for yeast infections was cited as an example of an advance that may not have happened without the involvement of women researchers.

The meeting centered on three main talks, along with discussion about the participants’ experiences.

Marjorie Olmstead, a physics professor and the director of the nanotechnology Ph.D program at the University of Washington, gave the first lecture, “Women in Nano: Double Bind or Double Bonus?” The title was a reference to the seminal 1976 report “The Double Bind,” co-authored by Malcom. “Double Bind” came from a similar meeting in 1975, when 30 minority women in science gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities they saw for themselves.

Olmstead presented data from a survey of women at Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers conducted by the Center for Workforce Development showing that their numbers have grown steadily since 1971, mirroring increases in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Women are better represented at NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers—collaborative university research groups bridging different departments and institutions—than in nanoscience’s parent fields of physics, and engineering. Olmstead says 20% of senior faculty at NSF nanoscience centers are women, compared to 17% of tenured physical sciences faculty and 7% of tenured engineering faculty according to an NSF study of science and engineering Ph.D.s working at universities.

Olmstead suggested this might be due in part to the variety of backgrounds nanoscience attracts; the data show a third of women in nanoscience report working in a field different from their Ph.D. Many of them came from chemistry or life sciences, where women are better represented than in physics, math, or engineering.

Brainard, in an interview, cited numbers that are even less favorable: At the 62 federally funded Nanotechnology Centers in the United States, only 220 faculty members—or 14%—are women.

The field should be alluring to women researchers, speakers said. Among the “bonuses” of working in nanoscience, Olmstead identified the field’s exciting growth, its emphasis on collaborative and interdisciplinary work, and the opportunities for solving societal problems.

But speakers also identified a range of challenges.

At the University of Washington, Olmstead reported, many women are isolated as the sole female nanoscientist in their department, even though they may work closely with women in other departments. That collaborative approach, while a boon to research, can hinder career advancement. Many at the meeting said the amount of collaborative work they do is often seen as a negative by tenure committees.

Sue Rosser Photo by Sam Lemonick for AAAS

Sue Rosser
Photo by Sam Lemonick for AAAS

Sue Rosser, a biologist, provost at San Francisco State University, and a member of AAAS’s Board of Directors, expanded the discussion with a presentation of other challenges women face, including many that are familiar: balancing career and family, harassment and discrimination, and stereotyping. But, Rosser said, women also face challenges as they navigate commercialization. As federal funding is almost certain to keep decreasing, she explained, women are going to have to be more successful at attracting private support. Data show that women file many fewer patents than men and are less successful at attracting support from venture capitalists.

“Given that this field is very tightly tied to technology transfer,” Rosser said, “I would suspect that [low patent rates] is an issue in particular” for women trying to get ahead. She hopes more data collection about patenting in nanotech will sharpen the picture.

Although many women at the workshop had positive early-career experiences with industry, which they say has been faster than academia to take up nanoscience, Rosser says women have more trouble than men with the commercial side of science. The reasons, she suggested, may be varied. It may result from a “boys’ club” atmosphere in venture capital that favors men, and from an apparent unwillingness on the part of many women to pursue patents or investment.

A talk by Angela Ginorio, a women’s studies professor at the University of Washington, closed the meeting. Ginorio discussed the challenges of collecting and analyzing data on small populations, which has significant implications for researchers trying to produce quantitative data about the experiences of women in nanoscience.

Yolanda George, deputy director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, said Olmstead’s presentation was the first time anyone had seen data about the presence of women in nanosciences—and she agreed that getting more data should be a priority. “Beginning to collect the indicators [about women in nanoscience] is certainly a first step” towards answering questions about the challenges women face, she said.

Many of the women at the meeting were excited about the connections they had formed over the two days. Some suggested the meeting might be the beginning of a professional society, which nanotechnology lacks, or for a network that could recommend women nanoscientists for open positions and let women know about job opportunities.

Based on the interest in this meeting, Brainard said, a much larger future gathering would be possible. George, who is also the co-director with Brainard of the Global Alliance for Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, said she hoped there might be a symposium about women in nanotechnology at a AAAS Annual Meeting in the next couple years.

Sam Lemonick

10 June 2011