Women are finding it easier to become scientists, but many still hit a "glass ceiling" that hinders them in reaching higher levels of management, says a scientist who is documenting the work of women in creating the first atomic bomb.
"The situation's definitely improving. . . . It's much better. The problems aren't solved yet, though," said Caroline Herzenberg, who spoke Tuesday to science and engineering students at Utah State University.Herzenberg, a Chicago resident who is a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., is doing research for a book about women who worked on the Manhattan Project. The project, begun at Columbia University and moved to the University of Chicago during World War II, built the first nuclear reactor.
Under the direction of Enrico Fermi, a team of scientists put together the first atomic pile beneath the university's sports stadium.
In a Deseret News telephone interview, Herzenberg said today's women are able to get into physics more easily, and some are becoming assistant professors.
However, "the tenure level seems to be a difficult transition. It seems to be more difficult for women to make tenure or to get senior appointments in industry or in government."
The invisible pressures that prevent many women from rising to their full potential in scientific fields is called "the glass ceiling," she said. But the ceiling isn't the only reason; in fact, it's one of the last hurdles women must overcome in launching science careers.
"In early education, a lot of girls seem to be turned off by physics and other sciences," she said. This starts as early as grade school. To combat this, schools should try to find teachers who are comfortable and conversant with science, she added.
Did Herzenberg herself experience gender prejudice in becoming a scientist? "Oh, not a whole lot. Yeah, I hit the glass ceiling - but not a real lot of prejudice.
"I think a lot of women had a tougher time than I did. I've been fortunate."
As an example of the problems that women have in science, take the fact that their contributions to the Manhattan Project have been marginalized.
"There were a lot of women who went into war work when the guys were drafted and went overseas" during World War II, she said. "It turns out there were quite a number of women who worked in the Manhattan Project and other projects during the war."
But in the official histories of the projects, they're almost nonenti-ties. She isn't sure how that happened, except that overlooking women results from a certain mindset of earlier historians. They looked at the famous men involved in the projects, "and the women were kind of ignored."
Leona Woods Marshall was one of the pioneers who worked on the Manhattan Project, she said.
"She'd just got her degree, and she worked on the neutron counters. She was present when the reactor, the pile, went critical."
That event - the first man-made nuclear chain reaction, on Dec. 2, 1942 - proved that the atomic bomb was feasible.
When the reaction began, Marshall was using her radiation counters to detect radiation coming from the pile.
"One of her projects was to build the actual instruments that detected the radiation. So, she was there and doing a very important job when the first reactor went critical," Herzenberg said.
Married to John Marshall, a colleague who was also a physicist with the project, she continued to work after she became pregnant. But in those days, pregnant women were expected to stay home, not show up in the lab.
Leona Woods Marshall would wear overalls and a denim jacket to hide her pregnancy. She worked until two days before their son was born.
"Now we take it for granted that women who are pregnant can work," Herzenberg said.
When the team went to Hanford, Wash., where larger reactors were built, "her mother came along for child care." That is because, 50 years ago, few arrangements were made for women to care for their children at work.
It was hard then, as it is now, "for women to make it in science and deal with being married and having kids," Herzenberg said.
Of the women like Leona Woods Marshall who worked on important scientific projects during World War II, she said, "Somehow they got erased from history."
Herzenberg and a co-author are planning to rectify that. They have been tracing women who worked on the projects, and they intend to publish a book about them.
"We've had quite a time of it, keeping track of those women."
Meanwhile, she said, "we certainly want to do what we can to encourage the women, as well as the young men, to continue their studies in science."