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
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
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 http://www.nap.edu.
Selected pages can also be viewed at this site.