Letter from the Editor

bridges vol. 16, December 2007 / Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

"Oratio qua ostenditur artium liberalium studia femineo sexu neutiquam abhorrere"
is not an early Latin Christmas blessing, but rather the title of one of the earliest discourses on the role of women in science.  Translated as: "a discourse to show that liberal [arts] studies were not unsuited to the female gender," the paper was written in 1727 in Milan, Italy, by the Catholic abbot Niccolo Gemelli for (and probably about) his brightest private student, Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Then nine years old, Maria translated the paper from its original Italian into Latin, and recited it during a gathering of academics at her father's house. As an adult, Maria wrote the first (still existing) mathematics text by a woman, and was the first woman to hold the post of mathematics professor at a university.

Despite not having read the whole discourse, I can certainly agree with its message.

Since the Age of the Enlightenment, women in search of education and scientific knowledge have made a long journey. For example, only since 1946 have women in Austria been allowed to study at any faculty they wish:  Although admission of women to the Philosophical Faculty was granted in 1897, it was almost 50 years later, in 1946, that the last male bastion, the Faculty of Catholic Theology, finally opened its lecture halls to female students. In comparison, this level of full academic access was not available to American women until the 1960s.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} So it is even more noteworthy that today - whether one looks at the US, Austria, or the European Union - admission statistics show that women have taken full advantage of the educational opportunities available to them after WWII. Not only have they caught up with their male counterparts, but women now constitute more then 50 percent of the students enrolling at universities.

Looking at the data from individual disciplines, however, the proportion of women and men still differs strongly in many areas. It is especially evident in the "hard" sciences and engineering that women are clearly in the minority. Take as an example the EU27 where, according to 2004 data from Eurostat , 66 percent of students in the humanities and the arts were female, but women made up only 38 percent of students in the natural sciences, mathematics, and informatics.

In interviews with Dr. Shirley Malcom , head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and with Dr. Susanne Schwinghammer , program manager of fFORTE_Coaching, an Austrian program specifically designed to support female researchers, bridges offers some insights into the reasons for the current situation, as well as ways to remedy it, drawing on perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic.

Apart from well-known problems such as the glass ceiling for women climbing up the career ladder, or the lack of female role models and networks, the current small number of female faculty in academia should give special cause for concern. Female mentors are desperately needed to encourage their younger female colleagues - without support, a demoralizing climate can cause otherwise qualified women to become discouraged and choose other, more welcoming, professions.

In Austria, for example, only 14 percent of tenure track positions (across all academic disciplines) are held by female professors, according to data from a recent Statistik Austria study comparing the overall life situations of men and women. Nor is the outlook for women much better in private industry or public service: Only 39 percent of female graduates (again, across disciplines) make it into high-ranking positions, compared to 55 percent of their male colleagues - despite the same academic qualifications.

Women also are clearly shown that their work is less valued than that of their male colleagues when paychecks arrive at the end of each month. The European Commission presented a study this November with a special focus on researchers' salaries within the EU and associated countries. On the question of male/female salaries, it states: "In most of the countries, the remuneration for men is higher than for women." The study shows that in Austria, for example, female researchers earn 30.40 percent less than their male colleagues, with men earning an average of €65,647 ($94,727) per year, while women receive €45,689 ($65,858).

To sum it up:  Much has been accomplished for and through women in science, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.  Let us hope that speculations such as those of Harvard ex-President Lawrence Summers in 2005 (as to why so few women were on the science faculty at Harvard) are finally part of the past, while actions by academic officers such as Princeton President Shirley Tilghman light the way to the future. Tilghman and eight other major university presidents have endorsed a statement on gender equity in higher education, which even includes the welcome progressive phrase: "a culture that supports family commitments is therefore essential for maximizing the productivity of our faculty."

Instead of writing a letter to Santa, I want to send my wish list for women in science to policy makers, administrators in academia, and managers in private industry:  Remove the remaining obstacles created by the patriarchal structure and values of universities, government, and industry since scientific talent is not a question of gender.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for 2008!

Caroline Adenberger


Maria Gaetana Agnesi - Una scienziata fuori dal comune

Oratio qua ostenditur artium liberalium studia femineo sexu neutiquam abhorrere (in German)

Women at Austria's universities

Press Release Eurostat, March 2007
Eine statistische Beschreibung der Situation von Frauen und Männern in der EU27

Statistik Austria, Statistic on Frauen und Männer in Österreich, December 2007

European Commission, Research Directorate-General, November 2007, Remuneration of Researchers in the Public and Private Sectors