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October 1957

Science: Careers for Women
by Helen Hill Miller

When the Atlantic was started, women scientists were next to unknown …

Much of the time and energy of women who entered the scientific professions in the nineteenth century was spent in either contriving to take barriers gracefully or crashing into them with results demolishing sometimes the woman, sometimes the barrier …

To many a pioneer who came up the hard way, the lot of the science majors of the class of 1957 who are entering advanced study or employment this autumn seems a very easy one. This does not mean, however, that all bars are down. A few “No Admittance” signs are still posted: for instance, use of the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar is denied to women astronomers, on the ground that living facilities on the mountain are inadequate, though the 120-inch instrument at near-by Lick Observatory is unrestricted. Similarly, some industrial corporations still refuse to hire women engineers, on the ground that living conditions in the field are difficult …

Other types of restriction remain. One is the counsel that many young girls get when making up their minds about entering a profession. Interviewed in his private machine shop among boulders and birches at Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Vannevar Bush [the renowned pioneer in analog computing] credited folklore with much of the reluctance of women to attempt disciplines based on logic, such as mathematics and physics. Promising youngsters, he remarked, are frequently scared off by the declaration: “Girls aren’t good at math.” Some girls, he believes, can be very good at it. Dean Gordon B. Carson of Ohio State’s College of Engineering concurs: “There is still some social stigma and question in the high schools of the nation when girls major in the scientific-mathematics portion of the high school curriculum” …

The two-way stretch of a home and a job, during at least part of a married woman’s life, is undeniable. To solve this highly personal problem without quitting requires finding an employing institution that can accommodate itself to maternity leave, part-time employment, sudden emergencies. It requires a family in accord with the effort. It requires finding, for at least part of the time when the children are young, another woman who can relieve the scientist of the necessity of being in two places at the same time. And it requires a certain philosophy about scientific attainment: in today’s competitive conditions, continuity of work is almost indispensable if one is to get as far as one might be able to go—as Vannevar Bush puts it, “Getting to the top on part time is doggone tough.”

Volume 200, No. 4, pp. 123–128

Read the full article here.