By Mike Drummond

MayCoverSmallLike a plane crash survivor describing a brush with disaster, Joan Herbers is eager to talk about her “glass ceiling story.”

She was a biology professor and one of eight department chairs in her college at Colorado State University. Herbers had been there for about seven years and was second in seniority. Not a bad gig … that is, until she discovered that among the eight department chairs, she was the second-lowest paid.

Was it because she was a woman?

The school’s dean attempted to explain why he needed to pay men of lesser status higher pay.

“That. Made. Me. Mad,” Herbers recalls. “I said, ‘What happened to the concept of equal pay for equal work?’”

Unable to get a satisfactory answer, Herbers eventually walked. She landed at Ohio State University in 2002 and became the dean of the college’s biological sciences. Herbers left that position to focus on teaching at OSU. This year she stepped in as the president of the Association of Women in Science, a 3,000-member organization based in Alexandria, Va.

Herbers’ experience in Colorado – and countless other scenarios women in academia and industry confront – account for the existence of AWIS, which for the past 40 years has been on a mission to lure more women into science, technology, engineering and math careers. And the effort appears to be working, at least in part.

Women have gained ground on men, earning about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees since 2000. But there’s a big disconnect after the pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies. Only about 20 percent of all science, engineering and medical professors are women, according to the most recent National Science Foundation data.

Leave aside for the moment the fact university salaries for the untenured tend to suck.

“The American academic scientist earns less than an airplane mechanic, has less job security than a drummer in a boy band, and works longer hours than a Bolivian silver miner,” notes Philip Greenspun, a humorist, pilot, prolific blogger, a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science, and a software engineering teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To be sure, things aren’t all that much better in the private sector.

“For people with Ph.D.s in biology,” Greenspun wrote several years ago, “there are a lot of jobs at pharmaceutical companies paying more than $100,000 per year. Considered on purely economic grounds, these jobs don’t justify the time and foregone income invested in a Ph.D. There are 22-year-olds earning $150,000 per year selling home mortgages.”

If you factor in pay disparity, it’s a wonder any women pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM.

Returning to the academic setting, where today’s budding scientists are nurtured, fewer women at the university lectern translates to fewer female role models. It’s a negative feedback loop that may partly explain the dearth of women elected to the National Academy of Sciences and other esteemed peer bodies.

Between 2001 and 2005, women made strides each year and accounted for nearly 30 percent of NAS membership, a recent historical high. Since then, however, women representation has backslid, accounting for about 15 percent in 2009.

Election to the National Academy of Sciences … “is the Academy Awards of STEM – the single-most prestigious honor afforded American men and women of science,” Herbers says.

“If women are going into STEM … but not being recognized by election to the academies, does that mean women are worse than men at science, or does it reflect underlying bias? The evidence we have points to the latter,” she adds. “Visibility is extremely important to keep the pipeline flowing, and so election to the National Academy is watched carefully.”

Within the broad spectrum of science and engineering, other intriguing gender dynamics are work.

Female enrollment in the life sciences and geology remains robust; not so for physics and computer science. Herbers offers a telling anecdote.

One university wanted to interest girls in computer science. It sent out fliers to a local high school, inviting students to build computers on a Saturday morning. All boys showed up.

The university tried it again. This time it changed the wording to note the computers would be donated to inner-city schools. Girls showed up en mass.

Geology and life sciences tend to offer more tangible connections to solutions for real-world problems, Herbers says, which isn’t always articulated in the case of mechanical, electrical and computer sciences.

“How are we going to change the world? How are we going to cure cancer or address global climate change?” Herbers says. “It’s that immediate connection to societal impact that’s drawing girls into certain kinds of disciplines.”

Herbers has an intellectual thing for ants. She earned her doctorate at Northwestern University and has studied the sex ratios and social evolution of one of the world’s most populous insects. It also should be noted that unlike most universities and research labs, dominant females run ant colonies.

So she read with distressed interest the “2020 Visions” series in the journal Nature. Earlier this year, leading scientists weighed in on their predictions for the next decade. Of the 20 contributors, one was a woman – Leslie C. Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, who wrote about hominin palaeontology or human evolution.

“Here’s my prediction,” Herbers says, “In 2020 we won’t have to remind Nature that half of its readers are women.

“We typically devalue women’s contributions,” she adds. “What’s real clear is once pressure is off institutions on issues of gender parity, as well as racial parity, the backsliding begins and this is because most of the people in power are white males.”

Testosterone-tinged work environments, the aforementioned pay disparities and even the age-old conflict of career vs. childbearing continue to pose challenges unique to women.

If there’s a Helen Reddy-edge to Herbers, it ebbs when I ask her when the AWIS will know it has succeeded.

She says it’s nice to see “being nerdy is cool again. In so many contexts, girls now feel comfortable showing off how smart they are.”

The Association for Women in Science, other groups such as Sally Ride Science and legions of grassroots mentors have helped raise national awareness.

“But we’ll know when we’re successful when the data show a reversal,” says Herbers, “When we see more girls going into science and engineering and staying in those jobs.”

Sweating the Small Stuff

Livia Racz

Livia Racz

Livia Racz was an assistant professor teaching mechanical engineering at Tufts University in the ‘90s and left after three years, far short of attaining tenure.

She entered the private sector. While she maintains ties to Tufts, she has risen to become a leader of advanced hardware development at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.

Racz is hush-hush on the details of her work – clients include the Defense Department, after all. However, she will divulge she’s working on electronic systems design and miniaturization technologies, developments that promise to enable a new range of electronic capabilities in ultra-small packages.

The humanities came easy to her. “I always wanted a challenge,” she says, “and the sciences presented more of a challenge and I gravitated to that.”

Her parents, immigrants from Hungary, also informed her education and career goals.

“My parents lived through invasions,” she says. “They would say the only thing you can take with you from country to country is what you know.”

Racz recalls telling her family she wanted to be a lab technician when she grew up. Her father, a chemist, asked why would she stop there? “You can do a lot better than that,” he said.

Her family’s higher expectations and her moxie for a challenge served her well at MIT, where she earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees in materials science and engineering. Indeed, an initial experience with whom she calls “an anti-role model” could well have derailed her scientific aspirations.

She was a freshman and felt far less prepared than her Ivy League peers. “Everyone,” she says, “knew so much more than I.”

A professor, whom she says shall go nameless, gave a first-day exam. It was his annual ritual. The exam contained what he said every student should already know. “If you don’t,” he declared, “you shouldn’t be here.”

The comment rattled Racz and she failed the exam. Despite the flop, she stuck with the course.

Later, after earning her doctorate, she confronted the professor, telling him that his “you shouldn’t be here” remark likely serves as a disincentive for many women and minorities trying to succeed in the unfamiliar, intimidating and rarified atmosphere of MIT.

Racz says the professor was “horrified” that what he considered a casual comment could have such a profound effect.

Beyond this particular loss-of-confidence experience, Racz sees a more pernicious threat to the future of STEM-based careers. Research institutions, corporate labs and universities need to offer more meaningful summer internships.

Too often, Racz says, summer jobs are make-work and menial.

“This has a profound effect on people’s career trajectories,” she says. “If we want to increase people in the sciences, we should be really smart about how we structure these opportunities.”

Skin Deep

Heather Clark

Heather Clark

Heather Clark loved painting and drawing as a child and was convinced she was going to be an artist.

Then she took her first chemistry class as a sophomore in high school.

“That was it,” she says. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Clark appreciated the complexity of chemical reactions, the molecular drama that occurs behind the scenes and is invisible to the unaided human eye.

“I just really loved how there was a mathematical way to describe what was going on,” she says. “It’s a good outlet for creativity. Chemistry and art are fairly related if you think about it.”

Clark is a biomedical engineer at Draper Laboratory. And in one sense, she’s also a tattoo artist.

She has invented a nanosensor that’s injected just under the skin. Still in the experimental stage, the high-tech tattoo is about the diameter of a small nail head and consists of tiny beads with a reactive, florescent chemical. The beads can react with glucose and reveal blood-sugar levels. Her technology is intended to help diabetics monitor their glucose without having to prick their fingers for blood samples.

The nanosensors have other potential applications, from measuring athletic performance to detecting sodium and hydration levels.

Growing up in rural Michigan, Clark says she had little exposure to science as a career option. Yet the societal cues, both subtle and overt, that continue to dissuade many women from pursuing science were well at play in her neck of the woods.

A junior high school teacher told Clark’s mother that it was “too bad” she was a girl because she was so gifted in math and science.

The comment was meant as praise, but the message was science didn’t have a place for women.

Clark has not only survived in science, she has thrived.

Her accolades include a National Merit Scholarship, a Baer Fellowship, an Outstanding Graduate Student Award for Research and Teaching from the American Chemical Society, a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship and most recently a Draper Distinguished Performance Award.

Her remedy for getting more women interested in science careers is getting girls into labs early and often.

She brings in high school students in groups of two to work on real-world lab projects. The students report their work to her and to other student groups.

“Every year I do this, without fail the kids tell me that it was not at all what they thought it was going to be,” Clark says. “They thought it was going to be boring or quiet.

“They find it’s a very dynamic social experience,” she adds. “There are lots of people to bounce ideas off of.”

If Clark has her way, someday we won’t be reading magazine articles about the dearth of women in science.

By exposing the creativity and wonder of science to girls at a young age, we’ll “move from where they’re wondering if they can do this, to it being just one of many options they have.”

Don’t Go There

Lara Hodgson

Lara Hodgson

Lara Hodgson was on a trajectory to be a rocket scientist – destined for NASA, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, someplace like that.

She earned a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering with highest honors from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The sky, literally, was the limit.

Hodgson left a potential career track in science after earning her MBA from Harvard. She has since become a serial entrepreneur, motivational speaker, mentor and community volunteer.

Although she hung up her lab coat long ago, science still informs who she is, what she does and how she does it.

“I am a scientist and I use my engineering skills every day,” says Hodgson, who’s the CEO of Nourish, a baby water-bottle product. “I don’t design wings for Lockheed. But there isn’t a business problem you could throw at me that would freak me out. I understand how to solve problems.”

In chatting with her, I’m reminded of the anecdote Joan Herbers of AWIS shared with me – the one about how girls responded to the invitation to build computers for inner-city schools. Women often frame and approach science, technology, engineering and math differently than their male counterparts.

Hodgson is hard to categorize. She’s fond of saying she possesses an “engineering mind with a liberal arts personality.”

She offers her own telling high school anecdote, one that illustrates how even well-intentioned, positive reinforcement can jeopardize the pursuit of a science career.

Hodgson, who grew up in the Atlanta area, had been accepted to Princeton, Harvard and other elite schools. Her high school guidance counselor summoned her out of science class one day to inform her she had been accepted to MIT.

She later attended a reception in Atlanta with other MIT-bound students.

“The minute I walked in I knew (MIT) wasn’t the right fit for me,” she says.

Hodgson was a track standout and wanted a school that offered a broader range of athletic and social activities. Besides, her parents couldn’t afford MIT – a fact they concealed from her even as they struggled with self-imposed guilt.

She later attended an orientation for Georgia Tech, “just down the street” from where she lived. Georgia Tech, she says, “spoke to everything I wanted to be.”

After spending much of her senior year struggling to live up to the expectations of her career counselor and others, Hodgson followed her heart and head and committed to Georgia Tech. She also confronted her high school counselor, who, she says, had “put his resume ahead of mine.”

“You made me think I wanted to go to MIT,” she recalls telling him. “How could I dare turn it down? You put me and my family through a lot of stress.”

He called her a week later to apologize.

“He wasn’t trying to mortgage my future for his own benefit,” Hodgson says. “His goal was to push kids into the best schools as possible. It was sort of an eye-opening experience for him.”

Talking with Hodgson, indeed, can be illustrative.

I came into this story armed with the assumption there was a wrong to be righted – that more women need to don smocks and take up science or engineering as a career.

Certainly, a range of social disincentives contribute to girls – and a disproportionate number of minorities – forgoing STEM-based careers. The chemistry teacher who doesn’t call on the girl with her hand up in the fourth row. The supermarket magazines that celebrate some new celebrity diet rather than, say, the vice president of the National Academy of Sciences (Barbara Schaal). The father who buys his daughter ballet slippers instead of a model rocket.

We should continue to encourage women and men of all stripes to consider STEM-based careers. Curiosity, scientific inquiry and problem-solving are keys to innovation and technology breakthroughs.

But not everyone blessed with minds for science need only be scientists. What if Di Vinci didn’t paint?

“I’m great at math, but that doesn’t mean I like accounting,” Hodgson says. “If you like math, it just means you support mathematical thinking well. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a graphic artist.”

Editor’s note: A version of this cover story appears in the May 2010 print edition.