On The Potential of Women Scientists and Engineers in Academia

Today, the National Academies released their long awaited report on the potential of women scientists and engineers in academia. The title is “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering”, and it can be obtained here. This is a hugely important topic, and they seem to have done quite an extensive amount of work on this. Here are some quotes from the press release, and then I’ll make some comments of my own at the end:

“Women are capable of contributing more to the nation’s science and engineering research enterprise, but bias and outmoded practices governing academic success impede their progress almost every step of the way,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Fundamental changes in the culture and opportunities at America’s research universities are urgently needed. The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population.”

Much the same can be said (and has been said in, e.g., my earlier blog posts on CV) about the largely untapped talent pool of minorities in general, of course. Quoting further:

The report offers a broad range of recommendations, including the following important steps. Trustees, university presidents, and provosts should provide clear leadership in changing the culture and structure of their institutions to recruit, retain, and promote more women — including minority women — into faculty and leadership positions. Specifically, university executives should require academic departments to show evidence of having conducted fair, broad, and aggressive talent searches before officials approve appointments. And departments should be held accountable for the equity of their search processes and outcomes, even if that means canceling a search or withholding a faculty position. The report also urges higher education organizations to consider forming a collaborative, self-monitoring body that would recommend standards for faculty recruitment, retention, and promotion; collect data; and track compliance across institutions.

University leaders, the report adds, should develop and implement hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that take into account the flexibility that faculty members may need as they pass through various life stages — and that do not sacrifice quality to meet rigid timelines. Administrators, for example, should visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty members who have children or other caregiving duties to maintain productive careers. At a minimum, the programs should include provisions for paid parental leave, facilities and subsidies for on-site and community-based child care, and more time to work on dissertations and obtain tenure.

In fact, the press release is really well written, so I’ll shut up and quote some more:

Forty years ago, women made up only 3 percent of America’s scientific and technical workers, but by 2003 they accounted for nearly one-fifth. In addition, women have earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000. However, their representation on university and college faculties fails to reflect these gains. Among science and engineering Ph.D.s, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions. And minority women with doctorates are less likely than white women or men of any racial or ethnic group to be in tenure positions. Previous studies of female faculty have shed light on common characteristics of their workplace environments. In one survey of 1,000 university faculty members, for example, women were more likely than men to feel that colleagues devalued their research, that they had fewer opportunities to participate in collaborative projects, and that they were constantly under a microscope. In another study, exit interviews of female faculty who “voluntarily” left a large university indicated that one of their main reasons for leaving was colleagues’ lack of respect for them.

Some of the key findings:

The following are some of the committee’s key findings that underscore its call to action:

> Studies have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and leadership positions in S&T fields.

> Compared with men, women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions. These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures, the report says.

> Measures of success underlying performance-evaluation systems are often arbitrary and frequently applied in ways that place women at a disadvantage. “Assertiveness,” for example, may be viewed as a socially unacceptable trait for women but suitable for men. Also, structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial support from their spouses. Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. Today about 90 percent of the spouses of women science and engineering faculty are employed full time. For the spouses of male faculty, it is nearly half.

There follows a summary of several of the recommendations to be found in the report, speaking directly to Universities on the one hand, e.g.:

University leaders should incorporate the goal of counteracting bias against women in hiring, promotion, and treatment into campus strategic plans, the report says. And leaders, working with the monitoring body proposed by the report, should review the composition of their student enrollments and faculty ranks each year — and publicize progress toward goals.

Universities also should examine evaluation practices, with the goal of focusing on the quality and impact of faculty contributions, the report says.

… and to Professional Societies and Higher Educaton Organizations on another, e.g.:

The report also recommends that scholarly journals examine their processes for reviewing papers submitted for publication. To minimize any bias, they should consider keeping authors’ identities hidden until reviews have been completed.

(which I’m sure is going to meet with some resistance), and to Government agencies and Congress on, er, a third hand, e.g:

Federal funding agencies and foundations, in collaboration with professional and scientific societies, should hold mandatory national meetings to educate university department chairs, agency program officers, and members of review panels on ways to minimize the effects of gender bias in performance evaluations, the report says.


[Federal enforcement agencies ]… should provide technical assistance to help universities achieve diversity in their programs and employment, and encourage them to meet such goals.

The full report can be obtained here.

Now let’s see what happens. This report says a lot of wise things that have been in similar reports before, both nationally and in probably every university’s diversity committees. Somehow, these reports have a habit of being written, and then everybody nods wisely, and then it gets shelved. Nobody every figures out how to implement things in a way that makse a difference. I like the emphasis on implementation that they’ve made considerable effort on in this case.

Let’s hope this ends up on the desk of every university Chair, Dean, Provost, etc., as a start. But it can’t stop there. Chatting -howevr seriously- about this in the central university administration will on its own do not good. The real difficulty in implementation, in my experience (sitting on such committees, as I do) is at the level of the day to day of a department. If it does not get down to that level, does not get past the stage where it is recognised as a vital part of the future of that department (rather than just a bean-counting device or other adminsitrative issue to be ignored because we all just want to get on with our teaching and research), then it will just collect dust on a shelf.

That’s the real challenge – in this area, and in the wider and much more difficult area of other minorities in science – to get it as part of the everyday culture at the departmental (or other units) level. Deans need to lean on chairs and other responsible menbers of departments (and other units) to figure out how to do this. Until your institution can do that, progress will remain marginal at best.


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