Academies Report Explores Issues Facing Women in S&E Academe

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Publication date: 
5 October 2006

"The fact that women are capable of contributing to the nation's scientific and engineering enterprise but are impeded in doing so because of gender and racial/ethnic bias and outmoded ‘rules' governing academic success is deeply troubling and embarrassing." - Report of the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

A comprehensive new report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine explores the reasons for, and commonly-held but inaccurate assumptions about, why women trail men in advancement in academic science and engineering (S&E). Based on expanding global competition in S&E fields, and the increasing population of women and minorities in the U.S. labor force, the committee argues that "our nation's future depends on" reducing the barriers that impede women from reaching the highest levels of employment and prestige within U.S. universities. Intended as a "call to action," the report offers recommendations to university leaders, department heads and faculty, professional and honorary societies, educational organizations, federal R&D funding agencies, and Congress, which will be summarized in a subsequent FYI. It also highlights a number of institutional programs and practices that have proven effective in attracting, retaining, and advancing women in academic S&E fields.

The report was produced by the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The 18-member committee was chaired by Donna Shalala, President of the University of Miami and former Secretary of Health and Human Services. Its report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," runs over 200 pages and includes chapters addressing the inequity between men and women in academe from the perspectives of biological and cognitive research; educational persistence and attrition; performance measures and evaluation; and institutional policies.

The committee reviewed "studies of brain structure and function, of hormonal influences on cognitive performance, of psychological development in infancy, and of human evolution," and found "no clear evidence that men are biologically advantaged in learning and performing mathematics and science." Based on these results, the committee concluded that "the different social pressures on boys and girls appear to have more influence on their motivations and preferences than their underlying abilities." It warns that some of that influence "may stem from mistaking the characteristics that are typical of current scientists, engineers, and mathematicians for characteristics that are necessary ingredients of success" in such careers.

"Women who start out on the path toward a career in academic science and engineering leave it for other fields at higher rates than their male counterparts," the report finds. "While there are field differences in pattern of attrition, more women than men leave at nearly every stage of the career trajectory." For some S&E fields, like physics, the small percentages of women in senior faculty positions can be largely accounted for by the smaller numbers of women in the pipeline in past years, but for many fields "lag time" is insufficient to explain the paucity of women currently in high-level positions. In fact, the report challenges the validity of the pipeline model itself: "The traditional pipeline model assumes a one-way flow...suggesting that once a person leaves science it is not possible to return," it notes, while women may pursue career paths "that are not accounted for" by this model.

For those who remain in the academic S&E pipeline beyond a doctorate, the report cites research indicating that "men postdoctoral scholars had higher levels of subjective success than women. Men had higher publication rates, although women submitted grant proposals at a higher rate.... One institution found that women faculty were less likely than men to have mentors who actively fostered their careers and more likely than male faculty to report having mentors who used the women faculty's work for the mentor's own benefit."

Similar issues affect women as they enter the ranks of faculty. According to the report, "research shows that bias affects the judgments made about women scientists and engineers and often results in their research being less valued than research by men." The report looks at evaluations of performance such as publication productivity, and finds that "when academic position, available resources, type of institution, and other personal and institutional factors are held constant, men and women scientists and engineers are equally productive. Other evidence indicates that women's publications have greater average impact than men's." The report also questions "whether number of papers is the appropriate metric of productivity.... Some have argued that both quantitative and qualitative measures of productivity should be taken into account in making important decisions about a scientist's career."

While advancement in academic science is generally assumed to be based strictly on merit, the report finds that "gender colors evaluation of scientific and engineering accomplishment." It cites research showing that "department chairmen evaluating male and female applicants with identical records tended to hire the men as associate professors and the women as assistant professors," and states that "blind" peer review, in which reviewers do not see authors' names, has been shown to reduce many types of reviewer bias, including gender and ethnicity.

"In addition to bias," the report continues, "systematic constraints and expectations built into academic institutions have impeded the careers of women scientists and engineers. The traditional scientific or engineering career presumes the model of an out-of-date male life course.... Historically, that career model depended on a faculty member having a wife to take care of all other aspects of life." This traditional view of an S&E career, the report says, "tends to disadvantage women and advantage men.... Seemingly neutral practices, based as they are on the life experiences and characteristics of men, can create barriers to the careers of women in science and engineering." It points out that "motherhood has been identified as the factor most likely to preclude a woman with science or engineering training from pursuing or advancing in an academic career," and that "having children, especially young children, decreases the likelihood of women's obtaining a tenure track job by 8% to 10% in all science and engineering fields but has no significant impact on men."

In summary, the report states that "Transforming academic institutions so that they will foster the career advancement of women scientists and engineers at all levels of their faculties is a complex task of identifying and eliminating institutional barriers.... The first step is to understand that women are as capable as men of contributing to the science and engineering enterprise. Second, the science and engineering community needs to come to terms with the biases and structures that impede women in realizing their potential. Finally, the community needs to work together, across departments, through professional societies, and with funders and federal agencies to bring about gender equity.... Our nation's future depends on it."

The committee's findings and recommendations will be summarized in FYI #119. The report also cites - and refutes - a series of "commonly held beliefs about women in science and engineering," which will be highlighted in FYI #120. A prepublication copy of the report can be purchased from the National Academies Press for $57.95 plus shipping and handling by calling 1-800-624-6242 or online at Selected pages can also be viewed at this site.