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Sally Chapman received a PhD in chemistry during a time when it was tough for women to find careers as lucrative as those for men.

By Sarah Hunter-Lacoskie | April 25, 2010

In the mid-1970s hiring women for university jobs—especially faculty positions—was still new territory. The United States had recently enacted Title IX, which prohibited gender discrimination in any federally funded educational program, while Chemical and Engineering News had begun publishing figures on the numbers of women faculty and PhD students. The presence—or lack thereof—of women in the workforce was becoming a national issue. At this charged time Sally Chapman, armed with a PhD in chemistry from Yale University, began her job search. Today Chapman is a professor in the chemistry department at Barnard College, but her early experiences in the job market demonstrate both how far women have come in science and how far they had to go.

Sally Chapman

Sally Chapman

Sally Chapman.

Chapman’s time at Yale foreshadowed her upcoming job search. At the famous Yale eating establishment, Mory’s, a men-only policy still applied. And when Chapman needed physical therapy after a skiing accident, a university physician sent her to another town, remarking that Yale’s physical-therapy facility was not able to “handle” women. Simply, women in “men’s” places still shook the status quo at universities.

Chapman’s two-year search for a job took her across the country and to over a half-dozen universities for interviews. Even though some positions prompted hundreds of applications, Chapman earned several interviews. With a PhD from such a prestigious research university as Yale and two postdoctoral appointments with the University of California (at Berkeley and Irvine), Chapman’s job offers should have been plentiful, as they probably were for men with her qualifications.

Chapman’s interviewers sometimes told her what she wouldn’t have known before arriving for the interview: she was not being considered seriously for a faculty position. Chapman says, “In more than one instance [I] would be told behind closed doors that there was absolutely no chance [I would be hired] . . . that this was simply because they had to interview a woman.” The advice was never given as an insult, as it may have been for women in science a generation earlier. Rather the advice was meant, in Chapman’s view, as realism: “At least implicitly in what they were saying was, ‘I wish [the situation] were otherwise.’” Chapman learned that hiring women—in most cases hiring just one woman—was seen as an obligation for departments. Beyond satisfying a requirement to be checked off by an academic department, a woman had a difficult time proving herself to be an attractive candidate for an academic position.

Chapman’s job-market difficulties were common. No matter how bright or capable, many women in science did not get any interviews. Getting a tenure-track position proved almost impossible. After months of searching, Chapman’s first job offer came as what her postdoctorate adviser called a “bait and switch”: a job offer that provided little or no hope for tenure. Only during her second full year of searching did Chapman receive two tenure-track offers, and she finally found a home at Barnard College, where her hardships were familiar to the woman who hired her, Bernice Segal. A generation earlier Segal—despite her Harvard University degree—had to fight unconcealed sexism to get a job.

Today as Sally Chapman marks nearly 35 years at Barnard College, women have made advances, but not to the point of unconditional success. Even now, Chemical and Engineering News reports that women are underrepresented in research universities’ faculty lists: in December 2008 the magazine’s annual survey showed that women now make up only 16% of tenured or tenure-track academic faculty. Chapman, remarking on similar statistics, notes that “scientists are data-driven and seeing the numbers, after a while, you realize that this [gender gap] is something real.” Chapman teaches at a women’s college, where opportunities for her students are greater than the ones offered to her but not as numerous as she would hope.

Chapman’s efforts in advising and mentoring her students, as well as her work with the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh), an organization dedicated to women in science, spotlight the importance of support systems. And unlike her early days, her work with COACh concentrates not on the getting of jobs—a battle now mostly won—but on what Chapman summarizes as “getting promoted, getting tenured, getting recognized.”