Hearing on Barriers to Women's Advancement in Academic Positions

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Publication date: 
30 November 2007

"It's not just good for science, it's good for America, it's good for our economy and our well-being. That's the point that needs to be infused throughout."
- Kathie Olsen, Deputy Director, National Science Foundation

Implicit bias, rather than explicit prejudice, is a major barrier to women's advancement in senior faculty positions at the nation's universities. American science and technology will not reach its full potential unless active efforts are made to address bias and other problems, witnesses concluded at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.

Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) opened the October 17 hearing by stating, "Women are receiving PhD’s in steadily increasing numbers. In fact, in some fields, women have achieved parity with men at the graduate level. Unfortunately, however, they still hold only 28 percent of all full-time science and engineering faculty positions, and only 18 percent of full professor positions. Today, we want to explore what happens to the available pool of women who have stuck it out all the way through a PhD. These accomplished women leave academia in greater numbers than men, and those who do stay in academia continue to be promoted, recognized for academic achievement, and paid at lower rates than their male colleagues."

The hearing's witnesses often cited a 2006 National Academies' report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." It concluded 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."

Donna Shalala, President of the University of Miami, chaired the NAS committee. She testified that "People - both men and women - for the most part intend to be fair, but act on unexamined biases when evaluating others. Many excellent scientists and engineers are opting out of the academic career path because of the perceived hostile climate for women - in hiring, tenure, promotion, and compensation - particularly those who wish to combine family or community service with research and teaching." Shalala outlined the report's recommendations, which are reviewed in http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/118.html

Myron Campbell, Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Michigan, described how a visit to his department by the American Physical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Physics found "the climate at Michigan for women in physics needs serious improvement." Campbell described steps his department has taken, adding that "problems exist at all levels and areas, and there is not a single solution or 'magic bullet.'" Campbell spoke highly of a National Science Foundation program, ADVANCE-Institutional Transformation Program. (For additional information on this topic see an AIP Statistical Research Center report, "Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2005" at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/women05.pdf and http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/womenfaq.htm

NSF Deputy Director Kathie Olsen described "significant challenges" the NSF has found in faculty recruitment and retention, and the general climate in academic science and engineering fields. Among these challenges are the importance of well-established networks, implicit bias, the feeling of isolation, and unclear policies for hiring, tenure and promotion. In addition to the ADVANCE program (http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5383 ), NSF has also cosponsored national workshops with NIH and DOE for the chairs of physics and chemistry departments.

The subcommittee also heard from Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Gretchen Ritter, Director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Hrabowski outlined steps his university has taken to support and advance women and underrepresented minority students in STEM fields. Among them are human resource policies, campus-wide discussions, and targeted mentoring programs. He spoke of the need to provide a "culture of inclusion" and a "community of support" to promote the advancement of women in STEM fields. Ritter testified that "It has been 35 years since the passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, yet women continue to lag behind men in educational achievement, particularly in the STEM disciplines." She told the committee that "we ought to use the leverage of federal education funding to mandate Title IX compliance within the faculty of research universities."

Reaction of the subcommittee members to the testimony was positive. The subcommittee's Ranking Republican, Vern Ehlers (MI), said "the climate is changing, but it is still an uphill battle to get faculty of either gender to have frank conversations" about what he called a "volatile topic." Ehlers noted that China, Russia, and many other countries do not experience this problem, saying that in the United States "it has to be a cultural issue."

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