Women Without Tenure, Part 4: Why It Matters; What to Do

This, the fourth and final article in a series about women scientists in the academy, addresses two questions: Why does it matter that women leave science in larger numbers than men do? And what can we do about it? The first article in the series presented data about women in the academy and the results of a study (conducted by The Project on Faculty Appointments at Harvard University) that showed that, all else being equal between two academic job offers, women are more likely than men to choose a non-tenure-track position over a tenure-track one. The second article presented data showing that women are underrepresented at the top faculty ranks and at the most prestigious institutions, and that they are more likely than men to drop out of the sciences during their undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training. The third article attempted to provide some answers to a key question: Why do women leave academic science in greater numbers than men do?

Why Should We Care? What Should We Do?

As the world's economy grows increasingly more knowledge-based and ever more reliant on a technologically literate workforce, the United States cannot afford to overlook the talent and potential contributions of half the population.

"If we are to maintain the pace of scientific discovery for the benefit of humankind, scientists need to ensure that outstanding people with many different talents will continue to join the scientific community" [National Academy of Sciences (NAS), 2000, p. vii]. To those different talents we might reasonably add different ways of knowing, approaches to scientific inquiry, backgrounds, experience, experiences, and methodologies.

Scientific discovery must not be limited to a select few with homogeneous pedigrees and demographic characteristics. Recognizing that "science must be an elitist enterprise" because "it needs the very best minds" (NAS, 2000, p. 3) does not mean that we must discourage or turn away potential scientists because they don't fit a mold to which we have become accustomed. Although "science has never really looked like America" and "has always been carried out predominantly by white males," as America grows ever more diverse "a science establishment run primarily by white males runs the risk of alienating our nation and our people from science" (NAS, 2000, p. 4). "Many believe that the very nature of the institutions where science gets done in the United States and around the world must change--not only to accommodate women but to benefit all science and engineering workers and ensure that their discoveries benefit the planet's population in an optimal and equitable way" (Thom, 2001, p. 6).

"The next decade offers an especially propitious time to diversify the academy, because record numbers of new faculty will be hired to accommodate enrollment growth and wholesale retirements (more than one third of full-time faculty are 55 or older). If the profession does not act now, faculty diversity may be stalled for another 30 years--which does not serve the interests of the academy or society at large" (Trower and Chait, 2002, p. 98).

What Can Be Done to Stem the Tide?

Although little can be done in the short term about the larger issues that affect women's choices and lives--stereotyping, gender schemas that favor men, pay inequity, and basic biology--interventions positive and negative can and do occur at each stage in a woman's academic life. The retention of women in science, engineering, and technology (SET) throughout their academic studies is affected by their interaction with faculty members, their integration into the department, the nature of the discipline, the presence or absence of role models and mentors, and the sheer numbers of female faculty members.

Balancing the Equation (Thom, 2001) provides a number of guidelines, paraphrased below, for keeping female students in science:

Undergraduate Women

1. Exercise leadership at all levels to mandate gender-equitable practices.

2. Allocate funding to ensure the success of gender-equity initiatives.

3. Examine and reform admissions practices that may perpetuate discrimination.

4. Substitute courses that invite students into the discipline for gatekeeping courses designed to weed students out early, especially in fields like computing, physics, and engineering where young women may have been discouraged disproportionately by negative stereotypes.

5. Develop interventions to retain female science students.

6. Invest in mentoring programs with role models who can demonstrate people-helping aspects of careers in SET.

7. Add research components to undergraduate study to provide an early introduction to science applications, because many undergraduates have said that having the opportunity to do research early in their academic careers has encouraged them to remain in science.

Graduate Women

1. Encourage institutional self-examination and analysis of personal, structural, organizational, and field-wide assumptions and practices that have an impact on women at all levels.

2. Provide the necessary senior-level institutional leadership to guarantee success of programs to restructure graduate and postgraduate education by including more gender-equitable policies and practices.

3. Provide responsive and appropriate mentoring for women graduate students.

4. Look to liberal arts, women's, and historically black colleges to recruit promising students for graduate SET departments.

5. Address lifestyle and work-and-family issues for women and for men.

6. Continue to support such alternative settings as women's studies departments, where feminist scientists and scholars can offer alternative visions of the future.

The recommendations that follow, to improve institutional success in the hiring, promotion, and tenuring of academic women, are based partly on my own research, partly on the recommendations of Mary Thom and Virginia Valian, and partly on literature (found on- and offline) about the experiences of women faculty members at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford, University of Arizona, University of California, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin:

Faculty Women

1. Collect, analyze, and disseminate data about hiring, retaining, and promoting women. A big problem is the lack of consistent data about the progress of women in the academy over time. Data from the government lags 5 years and are typically presented only in the aggregate. Even within one institution, data are often haphazard and difficult to find.

2. Measure the satisfaction and progress of women and make it public. Other professions, especially law and business, do a better job of letting women know the best places to work. Publishing ratings of women lawyers' satisfaction in American Lawyer has spurred law firms into policy action leading to higher ratings in subsequent surveys. Working Woman and Working Mother magazines let women know the most family-friendly firms. The academy has nothing comparable.

3. Ensure visibility for women professors by appointing them to influential committees both within university departments and university-wide. Reward professors who spend time on curriculum reform, mentoring activities, and other efforts to include women of all races (Thom, 2001).

4. Rethink the current funding structure at research universities. Current funding often goes to a project, therefore to senior faculty members, the result being that those in the early stages of their careers are seen as mere adjuncts to senior staff. Hold senior faculty members accountable for quality and equitable training of early-career scholars who work with them, and increase grants that go directly to postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Programs such as the Clare Booth Luce Professorships have successfully jump-started women's careers by offering tenure-track opportunities and funding support (Thom, 2001).

5. Provide specific information about the criteria for individual faculty success within an institution and within a department (Valian, 2000).

6. Work harder to locate and nominate women for important positions and awards. Institutions should address the issue of cognitive availability (search committees choose the names that are most quickly available to them) by ensuring that women are represented among invitees and awardees at rates proportional to their representation in the discipline (Valian, 2000).

7. Identify and rectify disparities between men and women, including workload (especially differential teaching, advising, and service requirements for women), salary, space, resources, and graduate assistance.

8. Create awards and professorships for the advancement of women in SET; establish equity advisers in each science school.

9. Offer incentives for recruiting and hiring women, such as temporary partial salary support from a 'provost's fund.'

10. Hire more women at senior levels.

11. Provide conditions that allow for balancing work and personal life:

   * Assess, expand, and improve child-care services; provide funding for child care; offer infant care, sick-child care, drop-in care, and care for school snow days; provide flexible hours.

   * Ensure equitable implementation of family leave.

   * Develop a more flexible workplace with opportunities for job-sharing, flex-time, part-time tenure-tracks, and stop-the-tenure-clock provisions.

   * Schedule meetings within regular working hours.

   * Provide domestic partner benefits.

I remain awed by the magnitude of lingering problems for women scientists in the academy, but I am heartened by the serious efforts of all types of institutions and departments. Progress has been made and much work is being done. But we still have many miles to go before we sleep.


National Academy of Sciences, "Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers," (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000).

Mary Thom, Balancing the Equation: Where Are the Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? (The National Conference for Research on Women, New York, 2001).

Cathy A. Trower and Richard P. Chait, "Faculty diversity: Too little for too long," Harvard Magazine 104 (4) (Harvard Magazine Inc., Cambridge, MA, March-April 2002).

Virginia Valian, "The advancement of women in science and engineering," in Women in the Chemical Workforce: A workshop report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000), pp. 24?27

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers