Can an All-women’s Education Better Develop Female Scientists?

When Mary Anne Fox started her schooling, boys and girls seemed to be on two tracks for education — and for girls, that did not involve advanced science studies. In a mixed Catholic school, she says she found little support for her interest in chemistry. But Fox persevered, and today is a world-renowned chemist, chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and a distinguished professor of chemistry.

Before her current appointment, Fox served as chancellor at North Carolina State University and as Waggoner Regents Chair in chemistry and Vice President for Research at the University of Texas at Austin. She joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin after a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Maryland.

Fox received her B.S. from Notre Dame College and her Ph.D. from Dartmouth College, both in chemistry. She has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and to fellowships both in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association of Advancement of Science.

In October 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama named Fox to receive the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on scientists, engineers and inventors. She has also received honorary degrees from 12 institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

Fox was born in Canton, Ohio in 1947. At the national level, she is a frequent lecturer on science education policy and reform. She has served as co-chair of a National Science Foundation/National Science Board Task Force on Graduate Education and on Texas, Louisiana, and National Research Council advisory panels for systemic improvement of K-12 science and mathematics education, and teacher training.

She has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and to fellowships in both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. From the American Chemical Society.

Fox participated in several panels at the 2011 Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi and said she was especially interested in better understanding the role of Arab women in academia. Speaking to Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, Fox notes that there still are not enough women in academia, and that gender-specific education, as many traditional colleges exist in the Gulf, has produced highly-ranked female graduates.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: We’ve been talking about encouraging women in the sciences in the United States for decades. How is that going?

Mary Anne Fox: When I got my PhD I think the number of women getting doctorates in chemistry was 17%. Now, I think it’s 40%. So that’s an improvement. But there is another aspect to it. In academia, women make up only 19% of the faculty. We have a ways to go there. They say that there’s a critical mass of a minority when there’s about a quarter. After all of these years we aren’t there yet.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Should we be making a distinction between sciences and mathematics, engineering or other traditionally male-dominated disciplines?

Fox: There is a sense that there are a lot more women in biology than physics, for example, where there are hardly any women students or teachers. Engineering is a little lower than that. Biology is where women have taken off. That’s the discipline of the future, largely because of biomedical applications and other implications.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there’s a benefit to an all-women’s educational approach?

Fox: There may be. We’ve been examining this issue for some time. Studies done 20-30 years ago showed highly-ranked women came from small colleges or schools that were gender specific.

I went to Catholic schools — boys and girls. From day one we were just told we were going to learn things, and, by God, we learned it. All subjects. The peel off in science began in middle school. The boys were treated differently with respect for being chosen to represent the school at the science fair, for example. The school clubs were mostly segregated — the boys went into the Future Scientist Club. If you were really, really motivated you could join as a girl, but it wasn’t encouraged.

I went to an all-women’s college as an undergrad, in Notre Dame College. For post-graduate work I went to Dartmouth, where I was a female in a quasi all-male environment. In most cases I had male instructors. But the thing about chemists is that they focus on the work and it didn’t matter if I was a woman or not.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: But the statistics show that even if women do go into sciences, their careers are not as long-lived as their male counterparts.

Fox: The latest issue of Chemical and Engineering News has a study on women in science and engineering that finds mid-career women are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men. It’s a complicated topic.

When I went to the University of Texas in 1976, I was the second woman on chemistry faculty. There were only two after I left, on a faculty of 52. But I had a strong mentor who looked out for me and helped me. He’s part of the reason I’m in administration. I asked him why there were so few women in chemistry and he didn’t have an answer. He had to give thought to it. Chemists are focused on chemistry; the chemistry faculty doesn’t sit around thinking about such things.

But the fact is that women are not getting into academia in proportion to their numbers and it’s harder to find them in industry. I don’t know if they are going home and not working, or working in another field.

Part of the reason is they start a family. That doesn’t explain it all. We don’t know where they are going. Maybe female chemistry grads are going into other professions. We used to argue that chemistry is the central course, and you could go into any direction from there. Perhaps they could go into law. Is that so bad that that a chemist is a patent attorney?

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: There’s often a decision women have to make between work and family.

Fox: Role models are very important. Many people are astonished to find that I have five children.

When I was still in school and had three children, I had an advisor who said to my first husband, "You are doing the world a disservice if you take her away from her profession."

My main mothering tool was granting independence to my children. My youngest son, at six years old, was responsible for making arrangements to get to and from baseball practice. All of my children are independent.

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