Glass Ceilings and Ivy Walls

Before we get started, I’d like you to picture university science professors in your head. Now, what did you see? Maybe they’re messy and disheveled, with unkempt hair and an untucked, wrinkled shirt. Perhaps they are more meticulous in appearance and have on a crisp, starched button-down with a pocket protector. Maybe they’re carrying the tools of their trade: a graphing calculator, a protractor, a clipboard full of data and equations. Are they in front of a chalkboard, or inserting data into a computer? We could even put aside our “color-blindness” and claim our science professor is of Caucasian or Asian descent. Or we could be progressive and see a smart, dynamic black scientist like a Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Now, here’s the question. Out of all the factors named, how many of you thought our professor is a woman?

5059558485_c6752fc964_zMany of you, myself included, probably pictured a man, and this is the trouble many universities in the United States are facing now. With women currently making up over half of the total student body on American universities, their participation in the science and technology careers remain at an abysmally-low 24%. Women enrolled in majors such as engineering also lack confidence that they will succeed in their chosen fields of study. What we are dealing with a true gender gap in science education. The scarcity of female role models in the sciences along with ingrained, culturally-influenced stereotypes that girls just “don’t get” math and science as well as boys lead so many young women out of these fields and into other majors.  This is not only to the disadvantage of science, but could also contribute to further disparities in pay between male and female professionals of similar education.

Enter the University of Virginia, which plans to launch a program aimed at filling the gap in. The University, partnering with the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation, will institute a five year, $3 million grant program encouraging more hiring of female faculty in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields as well as the social sciences.  The University’s Vice Provost Gertrude Fraser, in a statement to the Associated Press, notes that the success of the program will depend on identifying “subtle sources of bias” in the appointment and tenure of female professors.

Colleges and universities, held up as bastions of liberal and progressive thought, are the last places we’d expect to find the glass ceiling. Yet I’m reminded of one of my own experiences regarding this discrimination. While working at one of the local museums in Norfolk, Virginia, I met one such young woman hired on in my department. She had spent nearly 12 years in collegiate studies and was just finishing up her doctoral dissertation in history from a noted university. She actually took the job to give herself something else to focus on other than dates and dead people. In my discussions with her, it was clear she was a bright, serious person who I assumed would be a natural fit for the university classroom. As the conversation turned to what she would be doing after receiving her doctoral degree, she made it clear she had put the idea of a professorship already out of her head. She told me that the number of tenured position at colleges around the United States were so few that most doctoral candidates were not expecting to find work within the system they themselves were preparing to enter. She also informed me of the general “boy’s club” attitude of most tenured staff in her program made it difficult for female professors to break in.

After finishing her dissertation, she was able to find work in education, but only at a local private school. And while I would have been thrilled to have a doctor lecturing me on History in high school, I couldn’t help but feel had there been more tenured positions she would have been an excellent addition to the History Department at any number of universities.

As a private music teacher, I have the honor of getting to know students on a one-on-one basis and learning about their career aspirations. I’ve seen first-hand how an interaction with a passionate teacher can ignite a fire in students that glows bright for years to come. It is my hope that my female students will have interactions with great female teachers who have them strive to be the best person they can be. It is my hope that among my girl piano students I am teaching the next Marie Curie, or Rosalind Franklin, or Sally Ride. And with innovative and progressive schools such as the University of Virginia and organizations such as the National Science Foundation, we can encourage more of our girls to strive for excellence in the sciences, both for their sakes and for our own future prosperity.



Erica Guardino is taking a few weeks off.  The above article was written by her sub – and fabulous husband – Joe


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