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STANFORD - Women in science often face outright discrimination, occupational ceilings and sexist attitudes. There is a subtle expectation among both women and men that female scientists will not do as well as their male colleagues, and perhaps should not pursue science.

Universities around the country are trying to change that environment. At Stanford, that task is being undertaken by several organizations, including the Women's Science and Engineering Network (WSEN). Through its mentoring program and panel discussions, female students see women scientists who have persisted despite challenges and obstacles.

Though there are no solid numbers to prove that the group is working, anecdotal evidence has the women in the program enthusiastic.

"It has been a terrific success not only for the undergraduates, but also for the graduate women," said Pat Jones, a professor of biological sciences and the faculty adviser of the organization.

"There is a sense that they have common problems. Students realize that a lot of their own concerns and their difficulty in coping with the hurdles they are facing are shared by lots of women."

WSEN was established by the Undergraduate Advising Center in 1985 after a Stanford study, In the Pipeline, revealed that women who entered Stanford intending to major in science and engineering shifted to humanities and social sciences in greater numbers than their male peers.

That situation is not unique to Stanford undergraduates.

Science magazine reported last year on a study conducted through the State University of New York-Binghamton. It showed that "although the pipeline supplying the field of neuroscience starts out with a lot of women in it, it is leaking like a sieve. Roughly 45 percent of the students entering neuroscience graduate programs for the past decade has been women, [but] last year's survey showed that only 38 percent of the Ph.D.s [go] to women,."

Douglas College at Rutgers University in New Jersey established a dorm for 100 undergraduate women science students. The students receive the support of an on-site computer lab, a reference library and live-in graduate students who are mentors and tutors.

The University of Michigan's Women in Science Program not only provides counseling and support for graduate and undergraduate students, but also targets elementary and high-school students. "Summerscience for Girls" brings eighth-graders from all over Michigan to the university campus for two weeks of immersion in science. A second program places high-school girls in the labs of women scientists for six weeks.

"I believe there is a vicious circle," said Susan Shadle, a Stanford fifth-year graduate student in chemistry and a WSEN mentor for two first-year students and a senior. Younger women find science uninviting because there are so few female role models, she said, and then stay out of science themselves, so it remains uninviting.

"The conclusion drawn by many researchers is that the presence of other women - creating a different environment from the competitive male domain of most science - is the key ingredient in women's success," reported Science magazine in its second annual Women in Science survey.

At Stanford, the WSEN works under the principle "that mentoring can often provide the support and encouragement women need to stay in science," said Kathy Wright, the director of the organization..

In fall quarter, all undergraduate women who have expressed an interest in science are invited to participate in the network, and every graduate woman in science, engineering and medicine is invited to join as a mentor. The undergraduates are matched with graduate women based on academic and research interests.

Recruitment mainly focuses on the first-year students and sophomores because "they say if the rest of science is going to be like Chem 31, then forget it," Jones said.

This year, the women's network has 100 graduate and 264 undergraduate members. More than 90 percent attended the winter-quarter dinner at which they first meet.

"The energy - it was so wonderful to see all those terrific young women there. The conversations just take off and, shortly after, there is this wonderful buzz in the room," said Jones, who calls herself the "cheerleader" of network.

"It is encouraging to walk into a room and see 200 women who are interested in science, women who are not backing down because of society," said Angela Haydel, one of Shadle's first-year students.

The network also encourages the mentors to meet informally several times a quarter with their undergraduates. Shadle took her freshmen to visit her lab to show them that there are many different options for women interested in science.

"I am, was, pre-med and, after going to the lab, I am thinking of majoring in chemistry, maybe getting a Ph.D.," Haydel said.

The organization also sponsors receptions, dinners, panel discussions and speakers featuring successful women scientists. And it has set up electronic mail to help members introduce themselves and communicate informally, and announce meetings, programs and job opportunities.

"What the students want most is the opportunity to interact with each other and women faculty in science and engineering," Wright said.

Added Jones: "There are so few women [in the sciences] that they don't have much contact with each other, even though they struggle with the same things, both internal and external challenges to their succeeding."


This story was written by Kristin DeVoe, a science writing intern at the Stanford News Service.


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