Findings and Recommendations Regarding Women in S&E Academe

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Publication date: 
5 October 2006

A comprehensive new report by a committee of the National Academies, highlighted in FYI #118, finds that women "continue to face impediments to academic careers that do not confront men of comparable ability and training." The report, entitled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," includes eight findings and a series of recommendations targeted at university leaders, department heads and faculty, professional and honorary societies, educational organizations, federal R&D funding agencies, and Congress. Those findings and recommendations are summarized below:


1. "Women have the ability and drive to succeed in science and engineering" (S&E). The report highlights studies of brain structure, hormonal effects on performance, cognitive development and evolution that "have not found any significant biological differences" between men and women "that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions" in S&E.

2. "Women who are interested in [S&E] careers are lost at every educational transition." The committee reviewed data showing that women are lost with "each step up the academic ladder."

3. "The problem is not simply the pipeline." Even in S&E fields in which the percentage of women PhDs is relatively high, the committee found that those percentages are not reflected in the numbers of women full professors at top research institutions.

4. "Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering." The report notes that the environment in academic science and engineering has many aspects "that favor - sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently - the men who have traditionally dominated" S&E.

5. "A substantial body of evidence establishes that most people - men and women - hold implicit biases." The committee reviewed cognitive psychology research indicating that in general, "people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications, are less likely to ascribe credit to a woman than to a man for identical accomplishments, and...will far more often give the benefit of the doubt to a man than to a woman."

6. "Evaluation criteria contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women." According to the report, the supposedly "meritocratic" measures of success in academe are often arbitrary and biased against women.

7. "Academic organizational structures and rules contribute significantly to the underuse of women in academic science and engineering." The report says, "Rules that appear quite neutral may function in a way that leads to differential treatment or produces differential outcomes for men and women."

8. "The consequences of not acting will be detrimental to the nation's competitiveness." The committee believes that the academic S&E community must find ways to "capture and capitalize on" the increasing numbers of women and minorities in the labor force.


A. UNIVERSITIES: The committee calls on leaders in academe to take action to change "the culture and structure of their institutions" by addressing existing inequities; including the elimination of gender bias in institutional strategic plans; offering leadership workshops that include diversity components; holding departments accountable for fair, broad and aggressive search processes and outcomes; and implementing policies that provide "the flexibility that faculty need across the life course, allowing integration of family, work, and community responsibilities."

The committee recommends that deans, department heads and tenured faculty initiate faculty discussions of "climate issues"; educate faculty members and students on "unexamined bias and effective evaluation"; ensure that faculty recruitment efforts reach out to women candidates; and review tenure processes and timelines "to ensure that hiring, tenure, and promotion policies take into account the flexibility that faculty need across the life course."

Together, university leaders, department chairs and faculty should "examine evaluation practices to focus on the quality of contributions and their impact."

B. PROFESSIONAL SOCIETIES AND HIGHER EDUCATION ORGANIZATIONS: The committee proposes that higher education organizations should work together to form "an inter-institution monitoring organization" to collect data; recommend "norms and measures"; and track compliance and accountability; with a particular emphasis on "defining the scope and structure of data collection."

The committee calls on scientific and professional societies to assist in setting professional and equity standards; collect and disseminate data; provide professional development training that addresses evaluation bias; develop guidelines to ensure diversity of invited speakers at society events; ensure "reasonable representation of women on editorial boards and in other significant leadership positions"; nominate women for awards and leadership positions; and "provide child-care and elder-care grants or subsidies so that their members can attend work-related conferences and meetings."

The report encourages honorary societies to "review their nomination and election processes" and journals to "examine their entire review process...and take steps to minimize gender bias, such as blinded reviews."

C. FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCIES AND FOUNDATIONS: The committee calls on federal research funding agencies to provide workshops on gender bias; collect and publish demographic information on funding applications and outcomes; enable grant recipients to "use grant monies for dependent care expenses necessary to engage in off-site or after-hours" activities, conferences and meetings; create funding mechanisms that allow for technical or administrative support during a caregiving-related leave of absence; and expand support for research on bias, prejudice, and attempts to reduce gender bias.

D. FEDERAL AGENCIES: The committee urges federal agencies to set clear guidelines and leverage resources "to increase the science and engineering talent developed' in the U.S.; "move immediately to enforce the federal anti-discrimination laws"; and ensure universities have not engaged in illegal discrimination. It calls on federal enforcement agencies to "encourage and provide technical assistance on how to achieve diversity in university programs and employment."

E. CONGRESS: The committee recommends that Congress hold regular oversight hearings and take other necessary steps "to encourage adequate enforcement of antidiscrimination laws."

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