THE BLOG

Women of Science

08/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor underway, we have a woman in a very public spotlight who needs to prove herself to questioners who are mostly men. She's had to emphasize her devotion to the law, her detachment from emotion, and her all around stability. She'd probably get in trouble if she started talking about "women's intuition" or anything like that.

Now let's look at developments in science, where taking risks, going on a hunch and yes, intuition are all important. These are not words I'd associate with university or corporate science. In those often male-dominated labs everybody seems to be on tenure track or fretting about funding. But change is coming ... and it's female.

According the New York Times, women constitute about half of today's medical students, 60 percent of the biology majors and 70 percent of the psychology Ph.Ds. Though women remain a minority in the physical sciences and engineering that doesn't mean there are not female superstars in those fields.

Marissa Mayer, Google's employee number 20, was the company's first female engineer and its current VP of Search Products & User Experience. She seems to be doing ok, with a $5 million penthouse atop the Four Seasons in San Francisco. But she has taken some flak for being female, liking clothes, cupcakes and parties.

There's lots of bias out there. It's documented in blogs like Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted): Women, Science and Writing. A scientist known as Dr. Isis writes another influential science blog and I emailed her to ask about all this. She directed me to some data about women in science: While more than 50% of chemistry bachelors degrees are awarded to women, less than 32% of Ph.D's and 22% of assistant professorships are. Those careers hit the wall, some believe, because women are expected, pressured, conditioned or driven by biology to become mothers or pursue other non-career-advancing activities.

We know that men come from that planet over there and women come from the other one. The differences start early, with a shot of testosterone for male fetuses that helps them be competitive and assertive, and a shot of oxytocin for females that can help them read people's emotions. Studies have shown that men are better at spatial relations - like assembling Ikea furniture. Women are better at communicating. They are more likely to trust their intuition.

Shall I argue that these differences carry into adult life and change the way males and females do science? Touchy subject.

Lawrence Summers, past president of Harvard and current head of the White House's National Economic Council, got himself in hot water a while back for saying that innate differences between men and women may explain why lower proportions of women succeed in math and science careers. He set off a firestorm and later apologized - sort of.

Intuition is at the core of the risk-taking nature of science. Guys like to call intuition "a hunch." Thomas Edison was famous for hunches. But those making a career of intuition - placing it center stage - are more likely to be women.

Dr. Mona Lisa Schultz has a doctorate in Behavioral Neuroscience from the Boston School of Medicine and is the author of "Awakening Intuition." Dr. Candace Pert, formerly a section chief at the National Institutes of Health, is looking at the unconscious and its influence on illness, happiness and wellness.

I've been doing some research into integrative medicine and finding that a majority of the scientists involved are female. Why? They seem more willing than male scientists to invite intuition into the lab. They are the risk takers, making them more likely to be discovery makers. I am going out on a limb with that - just a hunch.