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October 18, 2010
Volume 88, Number 42
pp. 32-33

Progress Of Women In Academic Science

A study of gender issues in academe shows improvement but with critical caveats

Reviewed by Valerie J. Kuck

Courtesy of Sonia Underwood
CAREER PATH Women in academic sciences are doing better, though attrition rates are high.
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Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, by the National Research Council, National Academies Press, 2010, 384 pages, $48.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-0-309-11463-9)

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The National Academies’ latest book on gender issues in academe, “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty,” focuses on the key transitions in academic life under the control of institutions. The study breaks new ground, confirms some of the findings of other researchers, and refutes the contemporary validity of a number of conclusions drawn in other studies. The book contains an extensive review of the literature and relevant research. In most cases, data disaggregated by field are presented along with a statistical analysis. Readers not well versed in statistics will find following some of the analyses quite challenging. However, the findings from the study itself are clearly expressed. The book is a must read for people concerned about the future of science and technology in the U.S.

Information for this book was gathered and analyzed by committee members at the National Research Council. Findings from responses to two Web-based surveys are the focus of the study. The surveys were sent both to faculty members in and to departments of biology, chemistry, civil engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics at 89 major research institutions.

In one survey, almost 500 science and engineering departments supplied information on hiring, tenure, and promotion processes. Specific data were gathered on the gender composition of the faculty members at assistant, associate, and full professor ranks; the search committees and their chairs; and the tenure-track pool—that is, the individuals interviewed on campus, given job offers, and eventually hired. Similar data were obtained for tenured positions. The response rate to that survey was 85%.

The second survey was sent to 1,800 selected faculty members at the same institutions. A wide range of topics was addressed, such as the number of job offers received from other institutions in the past five years; plans for leaving the university or retiring; whether they had stopped or extended their tenure clocks; years at the assistant professor rank before receiving tenure; number of articles published in refereed journals and papers in refereed conference proceedings; the number of international prizes or awards they had been nominated for; the availability of laboratory institutional resources, including laboratory space; and knowledge of their institution’s policies regarding promotion, family leave, and workload relief for family reasons.

The study shows that gender was not a factor in a great majority of the career transition points under control of the university and that male and female faculty members have comparable opportunities within the university. Specifically, women applying for tenure-track or tenured positions had a better chance of being interviewed and given an offer than male job candidates. The mean percentage of women who were interviewed for a position was higher than the mean percentage of women in the applicant pool. For tenure-track positions, the percentage of women receiving the first job offer was greater than their fraction in the interview pool, except for biology where women were 33% of the interview pool and received only 22% of the job offers. Men at the full professor rank earn on average about 8% more than women at that rank. At the ranks of assistant and associate professor, however, men and women receive about the same salary.

The findings related to tenure are mixed. On average, the percentage of individuals who applied for tenure but were denied is significantly higher for men than for women. However, the percentage of women considered for tenure is substantially less than their distribution in the assistant professor pool. Across the six disciplines, 20% of the assistant professors were female, whereas only 15% of the tenure candidates were women. The difference was the greatest for biology, where women were 36% of the assistant professors versus 27% of the pool up for tenure. In chemistry, women held 22% of the assistant professor positions and were 15% of the pool of individuals considered for tenure. The survey also found that women spend significantly more time at the rank of assistant professor than men.

Women fare as well as or better than men when it comes to being promoted. Women were proposed for promotion to full professor at roughly the same rate as their representation in the associate professor pool. There was no statistical difference in the percentages of men and women promoted.

No gender differences were found in the area of professional activities. In general, male and female faculty taught the same number of undergraduate or graduate courses, served on the same number of committees, and spent the same percentage of time on service work. Men and women were given similar start-up financial packages, initial reduced teaching loads, and summer salary funding. In general, males were allotted more laboratory space than females; however, in chemistry, men and women had the same amount of laboratory space—1,500 sq ft.

Compared with men, a lower percentage of women reported that they had sufficient access to research equipment or clerical support. Only half of the younger faculty members reported having a mentor. A higher percentage of female assistant professors than males had mentors. Unfortunately, the study did not address the quality or helpfulness of the information offered in those interactions. However, it was noted that female assistant professors who did not have a mentor had a substantially lower probability of receiving a grant than those women having a mentor. There were no gender differences in terms of chairing departmental or university committees, being a member of a research team, or being nominated for international or national awards.

The picture was less rosy in areas that are less under the direct control of the institutions. Across the six disciplines, no women applied for 6% of the tenure-track positions and 16% of the tenure positions. Men greatly outnumbered women in the applicant pools; the male-to-female ratio was 7:1 for tenure-track positions and 5:1 for tenured positions. No women were selected to be interviewed for 28% of the tenure-track positions and 42% of the tenured positions.

The percentage of women in the faculty applicant pools for tenure-track positions was less than the percentage of women receiving Ph.D.s. Over the six disciplines, women earned 32% of the doctorates and were 18% of the applicant pool. This drop-off was by far the greatest for biology and chemistry. In biology, women received 45% of the Ph.D.s but were only 26% of the tenure-track applicant pool. Similarly, women were 32% of the doctoral pool in chemistry but 18% of the tenure-track applicant pool.

It should be noted that the authors failed to consider the gender distribution of the postdoctoral pools in the six fields. For both biology and chemistry, the percentage of postdoc appointments held by women is significantly less than their distribution in the doctoral pools, according to the National Science Foundation’s “Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1997–2004.” For the six fields, the drop-off is substantially greater for chemistry and biology than for the other fields. In electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics, the gender distribution of the postdoc pools approximates that of the doctoral pools. The percentage of women in the postdoctoral pool in civil engineering is significantly higher than in the doctoral pool. The disparity between the distribution of women in the postdoctoral and doctoral pools in chemistry and biology is particularly alarming because departments at Research I institutions in those two disciplines expect all tenure-track applicants to have held postdoctoral appointments.

In the area of faculty recruitment, departments reported doing little to increase the number of women applicants. Almost two-thirds of the departments reported that they had taken either no steps or only one step to increase the representation of women in the applicant pool. The most commonly used tactic was targeted or special advertising. The number of women applicants increased when women were members of the search committees or search committee chairs.

"Women were significantly less likely than men to converse with their colleagues on things such as professional topics, research, and salary and benefits."

The responses to survey questions probing the departmental climate and inclusiveness of women appear to indicate that female faculty members are encountering some problems. Women were significantly less likely than men to converse with their colleagues on things such as professional topics, research, and salary and benefits. Seventy-five percent of the female respondents knew their institution’s policies on promotion, which is significantly lower than the 81% for the males. In general, there were no gender differences in the percentage of faculty members planning on leaving the department or retiring. However, this was not the pattern for chemistry. Forty-one percent of the chemistry female faculty members planned on leaving the institution, whereas only 31% of the males planned on doing so. The existence of other job offers does not explain this observed difference. In chemistry, 39% of the men and 26% of the women had one or more job offers.

The job offer acceptance rates for tenure-track and tenured positions differed substantially for men and women. When men were given the first offer, the acceptance rate was 95% for the tenure-track positions and 100% for tenured positions. When the first offer was made to women, however, the acceptance rate was only 70% for the tenure-track positions and 77% for the tenured positions.

Overall, male faculty members published marginally more papers in refereed journals. But in chemistry the difference was substantial, with male faculty having a mean number of 16 solo or coauthored articles in the past three years; female faculty had only nine articles published.

The findings from this survey indicate that gender did not appear to play a role in the decisions made at various career transitions. This is contrary to a number of findings in the 2007 National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine study, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.” That study asserted that female faculty members are treated less well than males, evaluated more harshly, are less likely to be hired or promoted, receive less institutional support, are allotted less laboratory space, carry greater teaching loads, and serve on more committees.

If the U.S. is to maintain its edge in science and technology, reasons contributing to the lack of women applying for tenure-track positions, the high attrition rate of female assistant professors, and the acceptance of women as valued members of a department need to be addressed.

Valerie J. Kuck is retired from Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, and is a member of the American Chemical Society Board of Directors and an adjunct professor in the department of chemistry at the College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, N.J.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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