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The Door In The Dream: Conversations With Eminent Women In Science

by By Elga Wasserman

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From The New England Journal of Medicine, October 26, 2000
Equality in the workplace and equal access to leadership positions for women are issues that have stirred considerable debate among scientists during the past several decades. Despite affirmative action, several well-publicized cases of discrimination, and organized efforts to raise awareness, women still lag behind their male colleagues. An increasing number of young women aspire to careers in research science and pursue and complete graduate training. However, only a few emerge as strong contributors, and still fewer rise to leadership positions. Even in the biologic sciences, which are chosen by more women than the physical sciences, mathematics, or engineering, only a fraction of the women who earn their degrees or finish postdoctoral training find independent positions in academia, government, or industry and advance further. Indeed, Wasserman, who holds a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from Harvard but went on to obtain a law degree from Yale, is herself an example of the many women who complete scientific training but find success in other careers.

Wasserman examines these complex issues through the experiences of women who have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. These 86 women, who constitute about 5 percent of the membership of the Academy, are the elite women of American science; their accomplishments clearly identify them as having succeeded in a traditionally male-centered environment. Do the career paths taken by these women provide a formula that can be followed by young women who strive to reach the same heights?

Wasserman contacted all the women in the Academy. Most of them chose to participate in her survey and were interviewed in person or by letter. A subgroup of these women are profiled in detail, in brief biographies that are eminently readable and that convey insights into the personal and professional hurdles each woman overcame. These are presented in chronological order, beginning with women born before 1920 and ending with those born in the 1940s and later. This approach allows the reader to appreciate the progress that has been made since the early days, when women were actively discouraged from pursuing science, to more recent days, when this message has sometimes been delivered in more subtle ways.

Each woman's experience is refreshingly different. However, some important parallels can be found among most of the stories. Talent, intelligence, flexibility, and incredible perseverance are traits that shine through in every instance. Most of the women profiled in the book received critical encouragement, often from a family member who made it clear that it was not only acceptable but also highly desirable to ignore convention and find security through a career. Others received support from at least one mentor who likewise was willing to ignore convention and provide encouragement at a crucial juncture. Of paramount importance to the women who married was the active support they obtained from their spouses. As one of the women interviewed commented, "If a husband does not support his wife's career,... the wife has only two choices -- give up her career or give up the husband."

Some long-prevailing myths concerning the path to a productive scientific career are dispelled in this book. For example, most of the women married, and most raised a family; thus, the idea that success in science almost always involves total devotion, at the expense of other activities, cannot be correct. However, as noted by several of the women, choices have to be made, and the use of all of one's energy for family and science, at the expense of other personal pleasures, is a sacrifice that will probably have to be made. In addition, many of the women who raised families did not follow a conventional career path but, instead, either took time off or worked part time when their children were young. They managed successful reentry in different ways; strikingly, however, many of these women were married to highly successful scientists, who helped smooth what otherwise might have been a rocky path.

The book clearly illustrates that women can both be successful and enjoy full, rewarding family lives, but it also raises sobering issues. The flexibility enjoyed by the women who were able to spend time away from research is becoming increasingly unusual. The ability to divide all of one's energy between family and bench research is not afforded to most junior faculty members, who often bear heavy teaching and administrative responsibilities while trying to establish and fund their research programs. Combining these pressures with the unrelenting biologic clock that limits women's childbearing years and the often self-driven conflict between caring for one's children and managing one's career remains a heavy burden. Nearly every woman interviewed identified the availability of support during these years as critical if women are to make a larger contribution to scientific research. As the vignettes of women coping with these issues today illustrate, creative solutions are difficult to find.

Reading the stories of women scientists who have risen to the top of their profession should provide hope and inspiration to those who strive to make the climb themselves. Mentors, both male and female, will gain a new appreciation of the positive and negative influence their actions can have. The book should also heighten our awareness of the job that lies ahead. Constructive suggestions, such as fostering the creation of more job-sharing positions, implementing improved child care, and adopting a tenure clock that recognizes the need for family leave, are issues that all scientists need to espouse, actively and vigorously. Most of the elite women profiled in the book recognize their responsibility to future generations of women scientists. The Door in the Dream should remind other senior women researchers who enjoy established, productive scientific careers of their obligation to follow suit.

Naomi Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2000 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 2002
"...a worthwhile read for young girls considering a career in science."

Chemical Heritage, Fall 2002
"A Whopping Good Read. ...required reading for all who are interested in the future of women in the sciences."

Nature Magazine
"A Door in the Dream would make a terrific gift for a young woman in science--or for her parents or teachers."

American Scientist, Jan./Feb., 2001
"writing evenhandedly and with restraint...an enlightening look at the genuine progress that can be achieved through social legislation." -American Scientist

Choice, December 2000
"...Young women will find it helpful and informative about the lives of contemporary women in science."

Dallas Morning News, September 2000
"...accessible, readable and intriguing."

Women's Interchange at SLAC (Stanford), 2001
"...an intimate look at a group of elite women, written in an easy conversational tone."

Book Description
While much has been written about barriers to women in science, very little work celebrates the wisdom and insights of the women who have risen to the top of their chosen scientific profession. In this remarkable book, the author gathers the personal stories of the select few women scientists who have achieved the honor of election to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Including several Nobel laureates, the group is elite--yet their career profiles and personal interviews have much to say to everyone struggling to overcome obstacles. From their passionate love of research to their struggle to balance the demands of home and career, these women share a great deal. At the same time, these intimate portraits offer widely different insights about how being female has affected their careers.

In these chapters, readers will discover the importance of such factors as persistence, good mentoring, talent, and plain luck. Often, there is a critical moment at which, but for a serendipitous event, even these dedicated women could easily have been diverted from their career paths. The Door in the Dream offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of these inspiring women, providing readers the opportunity to benefit from their personal insights and anecdotes.

In an informal and engaging manner, the author provides a fascinating window into the changing status and representation of women in science in the 20th century. Among the eminent women interviewed:

Mary Ellen Avery May R. Berenbaum Mary K. Gaillard Margaret Kidwell Judith P. Klinman Nancy Kopell Marian Koshland Jane Lubchenco Pamela Matson Cathleen Morawetz Myriam Sarachik Joan Steitz Susan Taylor

This book will be helpful to anyone concerned about women: educators, employers, university administrators, career counselors, scholarship funders, scientific professional groups, established women scientists, and--perhaps most important --young women aspiring to a science career, their parents, and their advisors.

Book Info
(Joseph Henry Press) A biography of women in science. Includes stories on women from the 1920s to present day. Discusses how women deal with the idea of working and doing research as scientists and juggling a family at the same time. DLC: Women biologists--United States Biography.

About the Author
Elga Wasserman earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Harvard University in 1949 and a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1976. An experienced professional in science, law, and university administration, she provides an in-depth understanding of the everyday issues confronting women in male-dominated fields.



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