Engineering Prof. Valeria Bertacco said it was not until she entered the science field, that she discovered the stigma surrounding women scientists. She said she doesn’t think the stereotypes are meant with malice, but that it’s hard to avoid the conception that women can’t accomplish as much in physical sciences as men can. “(People) still expect an old guy with a long beard to know the most,” she said.

Three months after Harvard University President Lawrence Summers sparked a national debate with a comment on the innate differences in abilities and preferences of women in sciences, the Society of Women Engineers hosted a panel discussion on the controversial remarks with three University of Michigan professors of physical sciences and engineering last night.

Physics Prof. Timothy McKay said Summers’s comments were not appropriate because he disregarded existing research done on gender issues in the science fields. “For someone with that much authority to speak publicly without understanding the research behind it is disconcerting,” he said.

The research on the subject includes a recent study by Jacquelynne Eccles of the Institute of Social Research, which followed 1,200 participants from childhood to 30 years of age. The study found evidence for significant differences between the two genders.

Eccles said she found women to be less interested in engineering positions because they felt they would be working individually instead of with others. She said women have been seen to be more social than men, as social disabilities are more prevalent in men. Eccles said Asperger’s Disorder — a variant of autism in which those affected experience social isolation — is much more common in men.

“There are more men who aren’t interested in working in social groups — there are brain differences between males and females,” she said. “(But) we don’t know the extent to which those brain differences contribute to the abilities of men and women.” But McKay said cultural influences are a greater factor in dissuading women from entering sciences than these inherent differences. “The cultural expectation that people have for what kinds of careers certain groups pursue has an effect on the careers that those groups pursue,” he said.

McKay said the differences in women’s representation in sciences in other countries is indicative of the influence of cultural norms. Eccles agreed, adding that there are more women than men in engineering in India.

The professors at the event spoke about the burdens placed on women in physical science fields. While Summers said some women would not want to work in the fields because of the large time commitment, Bertacco said the homogenous environment is a greater factor. “It is difficult to work in an environment where you are the only person who stands out,” she said.

The National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program at the University works to promote women in faculty positions in science and engineering. The program has committees and advisors who work to make the academic environment friendly for women.

Chemistry Prof. Mark Banaszak Holl said the program has been beneficial for his department. “We can identify (women) as great candidates, but we can’t make them come. We’ve been able to get them here, and these resources have helped,” he said.

Another factor Summers cited was the innate preference differences between men and women, who may have more interest in having a family. The professors all spoke against this notion, saying both men and women take time off of their careers following the birth of a child in their families. McKay said two men in his department have taken advantage of this option.

“I don’t see why I can’t have a husband (and this job),” Bertacco said. “Why would a man be able to work 50 hours a week and a woman couldn’t? Only because your grandmother didn’t.”

Eccles’s study found that the controlling factors in the low numbers of women in science and engineering are a result of a lack of confidence at a young age, brought about by both parents and teachers. “Parents are more likely to attribute their daughter’s math achievement to hard work rather than talent,” she said. “When you tell a girl that she’s doing it because she’s working hard, she doesn’t draw the same confidence.”

The study also discussed the influence of the classroom setting on young women, as physical science and engineering classes tend to focus on competition with other students over overall improvement.

Holl said it is important for all instructors to look into this type of research. “We try to provide enough differences in the learning approaches that are offered in the class to appeal to all the different learning types,” he said.

Joe Serwach, a University spokesperson, said the presence of women in these fields has been important in scientific study at the University. “If any of these women had not gone into science, all of these things that they discovered would not have been known. The University is trying to improve the climate so that we can have a more diverse workforce and a more diverse student body,” Serwach said.

McKay stressed the importance of not alienating women in these fields because of both the need for diversity and simply raw numbers.

“Being a leader in science and technology in the U.S. is essential — we need more than our fair share of smart people. We need everyone who is qualified to be working on it,” he said.

Engineering sophomore Elizabeth Perez decided to organize the event, she said, when Summers’s comments put a damper on her motivation. She said she has seen the stereotypical attitudes that her male peers hold while working on group projects.

“(They say), ‘You do the write-up, we’ll crunch the numbers.’ You wonder, is it my abilities that are flawed?” she said.

“It’s really uplifting to hear that the Michigan faculty don’t have the opinions that women don’t have the abilities to participate in these fields,” Perez added.

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