Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science

April 12, 2012

Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, stirred up a storm in 2005 by suggesting that women are under-represented in science owing to "issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination". The author of this book, Sue Rosser, was present at that infamous meeting and in her introduction writes that "most of us, individuals who had worked and conducted substantial research on women in science...were appalled and shocked by his remarks". Breaking into the Lab covers Rosser's own experiences, from her early days as a researcher in zoology, through years of research in women's studies, culminating in her present position as provost and vice-president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University. It is complemented by excerpts from interviews with various women currently working in science and engineering research at a range of institutions.

Rosser has no doubt that women are disadvantaged at every stage along the career path in small but subtle ways - what she terms "micro-inequities" - and that this process plays a central role in the way women drop out and burn up. In this book she discusses how these micro-inequities manifest themselves at different career stages, building on the experiences and reflections of her interviewees. She also touches upon what might be done to improve the climate.

This book is written by an American about the US landscape. For UK readers it may have more limited resonance, with frequent mentions of "stopping the tenure clock", in particular, not exactly chiming with the way things are done here. Furthermore, the legal position in the UK is different in some quite significant ways (for instance, regarding maternity leave) that ought to make the academy here a rather happier environment. Nevertheless, the UK has many similar problems, with the numbers of women in science subjects decreasing steadily at every stage of the academic career ladder, and with many and similar micro-inequities present here just as much as in the US. So, leaving aside the inevitable American take on things, will this book bring insight and help for UK academia? The answer is, I fear not.

The early chapters chart Rosser's own career and experiences, interspersed with snippets from the many interviews she carried out to illustrate or stress her points. However, quite often the quotes seem to fit uneasily with her text, thereby feeling forced. Furthermore, for those wanting hard facts and statistics, this anecdotal style may seem unhelpful and irritating. The book could not be described as polemical, but it is certainly personal. Its style does not lend itself to use as a handbook for those wanting a guide to improve their own institution's performance, although for any senior managers who haven't yet considered the gender dimension in their science faculty, it may prove enlightening about the challenges many women face. Towards the end of the book the style changes radically, almost as if it had been written by another person. A chapter on why women are under-represented on patents is followed by one misleadingly titled "The impact that women have made on science and technology", which details the various types of feminist theory and how they interpret the challenges for women in these fields; this sits uncomfortably with the rest of the book.

The aspirations of this book, to inform and assist readers in improving the climate for female academic scientists, are laudable, but I cannot see that it will become a "must-read" manual. Long on anecdote and short on practical advice, it may have something for everyone, but equally it has everything for no one.

Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science

By Sue V. Rosser New York University Press. 260pp, £23.99. ISBN 9780814776452. Published 25 April 2012.

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