Oberlin Women and the Sciences
At Oberlin College, students are often reminded of discrimination faced by minorities. However, do we really know what’s going on with gender issues at Oberlin, specifically in regards to women’s experiences in the sciences? How will our gender experiences after Oberlin differ from our experiences in the classroom here? Scientist that I am, I decided to investigate further.
Surprisingly, all the female students I questioned, in departments ranging from geology and physics to chemistry and biology, spoke positively on the issue. Physics major Kelty Allen’s opinion exemplifies the majority of the responses of the women I interviewed.
“My experience at Oberlin has been pretty good as a woman in science,” she said.” It’s not uncommon here for women to major in the sciences, and I think pretty much every department has female professors. Having very competent female professors does make it easier.”
However, some people I questioned expressed some unease. Although no one pointed out any specific problems with the department, some had the sentiment that more needed to be done to empower women in the sciences.
“I think in general, there isn’t any overt sexism or anything,” said physics major Wendy Everett. “It’s more that I don’t see many women who are successful physicists.”
I talked to several of the female science-faculty members to gauge how they saw Oberlin in terms of gender equality and how we as female scientists might expect things to change when we leave Oberlin, as well as to understand why they think this is the case. I also wanted to see what they thought women should do in order to change things. Chemistry professor Rebecca Whelan first expressed an idea that was frequently reitereated — that the number of women in science is like a “leaky pipe-line:” there are less and less women the further up the ladder you go.
“There’s something within the system that makes women turn away,” she added.
Biology professor Laura Romberg theorized on the other side of the gender debate.
“The biggest difference I’ve seen between men and women in the research world is a difference in self-confidence and self-promotion,” she said.
At Oberlin, as with many undergraduate institutions, the gender difference is minimized by the supportive college environment. This does not continue in the graduate schools, she said, adding that “women more often than men can both dislike the atmosphere and/or be mistreated by it.”
The most interesting way I found that women could become more involved with the physical sciences at Oberlin is through the overall recruiting system used by the geology department. “We rarely get students coming in who want to major in geology,” said Geology Professor Karla Hubbard. “We have to attract them in,” she added.
A wide range of accessible courses in the geology department has smoothed any inequality in gender that existed originally.
“The geology department here is very cohesive,” said Hubbard.
I’ve found this is true throughout the sciences here.
The one thing I found to be universal at Oberlin was that female students in the sciences feel comfortable with where they are,and insist that their gender has not influenced their decisions regarding the sciences.
Institutions like Oberlin are dedicated to nurturing students and try to ensure that those who start a major are able to complete it. In graduate schools, the support system often changes. A lack of outward support may discourage a student who already feels unsure of his or herself or feels marginalized.
We can hope that as those women who are more comfortable in their environment
continue to gradually move up the ladder, and that all women will have an equal
chance throughout the science education process.