Report Refutes Some Common Beliefs About Women in S&E Academe

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Publication date: 
5 October 2006

"Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," the new report by a committee of the National Academies, addresses the status of women in academe and barriers to their advancement to the highest levels of employment and leadership. "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 committee chair Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and former Secretary of Health and Human Services, according to a National Academies press release. She added, "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."

FYI #118 highlighted the breadth of the report and FYI #119 summarized its findings and recommendations. The report also cites, and refutes, a number of "commonly held beliefs" regarding why more women do not advance higher in academic science and engineering, as follows:

Evidence Refuting Commonly Held Beliefs About Women in Science and Engineering:

1. "Women are not as good in mathematics as men." The committee reports that "female performance in high school mathematics now matches that of males."

2. "The matter of ‘underrepresentation' on faculties is only a matter of time; it is a function of how many women are qualified to enter these positions." The report finds that "women's representation decreases with each step" up the academic ladder, "even in fields that have had a large proportion of women doctorates for 30 years."

3. "Women are not as competitive as men. Women don't want jobs in academe." According to the report, "similar proportions" of men and women S&E doctorates plan to go on to postdoctoral positions or academic employment.

4. "Behavioral research is qualitative; why pay attention to the data in this report?" The committee finds that such data come from multiple sources, using well-recognized techniques, and have been replicated in different settings.

5. "Women and minorities are recipients of favoritism through affirmative-action programs." The report states that affirmative action is intended to "broaden searches" but not to "select candidates on the basis of race or sex."

6. "Academe is a meritocracy." The committee finds that evaluation and advancement decisions are "influenced by factors...that have nothing to do with the quality of the person or work being evaluated."

7. "Changing the rules means that standards of excellence will be deleteriously affected." The committee states that the current system of evaluation and advancement "does not optimally select and advance the best scientists and engineers, because of implicit bias and disproportionate weighting of qualities that are stereotypically male."

8. "Women faculty are less productive than men." The report finds that "the publication productivity of women" in S&E fields "is now comparable to men's."

9. "Women are more interested in family than in careers." According to the report, many women's persistence in science and engineering "despite severe conflicts" with family responsibilities represents a "high level of dedication" to their careers but is not often recognized as such.

10. "Women take more time off due to childbearing, so they are a bad investment." While women may take more time off for such reasons early in their career, the report points out that "over a lifetime career, a man is likely to take significantly more sick leave than a woman."

11. "The system as currently configured has worked well in producing great science; why change it?" Pointing to shifting trends in the "global competitive balance," the committee declares that "Career impediments based on gender or racial or ethnic bias deprive the nation of talented and accomplished researchers."

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 Additionally, a PDF version of the prepublication version of the report can be purchased for $15, or individual chapters can be purchased for $2.50 each.