This Woman's Work: Short Shrift?

September 25, 2006

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Women are being filtered out of high-level science, engineering and math jobs in the U.S, and new research by the National Academies concludes that the reason is basic, ill-founded bias — which is further hurting the country's ability to be competitive.

While women have made progress by succeeding in the academic sciences during the past three decades, bias still prevents many from reaching the pinnacle in their career fields, says a study released last week by the National Academies, which consists of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

Women are being kept out of high-ranking positions in science, engineering and math in the United States, and nobody's really sure why, according to the new National Academies report.

A committee of experts at the National Academies — which advises Congress, the federal government and a number of institutions — looked at all the possible excuses — biological differences in ability, hormonal influences, childrearing demands, and even differences in ambition — and found no "good" explanation for why women are being locked out.

Compared with men, women scientists and engineers are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions, the Academies said in a statement.

"These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures."

Many arguments have been made to explain why women do not excel in math and science — that they are not as good as men in mathematical ability, that female brain structures are different or that hormones affect performance, etc., etc., blah, blah.

These widely accepted stereotypes are mere myths, according to ongoing research, the latest National Academies report being no exception.

In fact, women now outnumber men in undergraduate and graduate life-sciences programs. Women have received more than half the bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2002. Women earn one-third of the Ph.D.s from the top 50 chemistry departments, but four times more men than women with doctorates hold full-time faculty positions, and minority women with tenured positions are nearly nonexistent. Women account for 27 percent of the math and statistics doctorates and constitute one-fourth of all students in physics and astronomy. In engineering, one-fifth of the undergraduate and graduate students are women. In the top 50 engineering departments, women earn one-fourth of the Ph.D.s in chemical engineering and 15 percent in engineering overall.

Further, female performance in high school mathematics now matches that of males. "If biology were the basis of that, we've seen some major evolution in the past decades," Ana Mari Cauce, Executive Vice Provost at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Reuters.

"We found no significant biological differences between men and women in science, engineering and mathematics that could account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions," said Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and head of the committee that wrote the report.

After much study, the panel had to conclude that bias basically accounted for women's under representation in science and technology academics.

The expert panel said the discriminatory discrepancies are costing the country many talented and skilled leaders and researchers, and if it wishes to stay competitive in the fields of science and math in the future, immediate and far-reaching changes are needed to alter the balance.

Of course, the problem is not restricted to academia, or even to science. The report reads that most people — men and women — hold implicit bias. "The under-representation of women and minorities in science and engineering faculties stems from a number of issues that are firmly rooted in our society's traditions and culture," the report reads.

Whether or not one considers the report far-left propagation, no doubt bias remains throughout the world. In the workforce and in universiteies, this denies the U.S. and other countries the talents, resources and innovations of some of the best and brightest science and engineering majors.

It can be argued, however, that the corporate community is ahead of academia in diversifying its workforce. A female or a minority applicant with a science or engineering doctorate can expect to be courted by corporations with higher starting pay and more perks — whether or not this is fair to "better-qualified" potential workers.

Yet among science and engineering Ph.D.s, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions in academia. Women professors still are often paid less than male peers. Women academics are given fewer prestigious academic committee and research project assignments that lead to promotions and more pay.

When the U.S. is facing stiffer competition than ever in the global marketplace of science and technology, it seems unconscionable that research universities and science and technology industries to an extent are neglecting the talents and skills of women and overlooking or discouraging their potential contribution. Academia must be competitive if it wants to attract talented female scientists. It will have to be able to prove that it has a record of supporting and promoting women — and minorities, for that matter.

The report recommends that colleges and universities revamp arbitrary evaluations that put women at a disadvantage, update recruiting and hiring practices to reflect women's increasing presence in the sciences and periodically review progress in hiring and promoting women.

But perhaps men and women have different interests. Perhaps women are choosing other career paths because they want to. Your thoughts?

Earlier: Upping the Estrogen in Engineering Talent Pool

Additional Reading

Bias or Interest? Inside Higher Ed

Report Finds Bias Against Women in Science and Engineering PBS.Org

Women In Science Face Widespread Bias Chemical & Engineering News

Study: Women Get Short Shrift in U.S. Science, Engineering Fields CIO blog

Bias Is Hurting Women in Science, Panel Reports The New York Times

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