Beyond Bias and Barriers

Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering , released last month by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), wields data like a weapon to demolish myths that keep university science and engineering departments from employing women. The report doesn't reveal much that's new about the dismal state of women faculty in university science and engineering. But it has gotten high marks for being forthright, prescriptive, pragmatic, and founded on data from most scientists we spoke to--even though response from some columnists has been less than friendly. And universities, funding agencies, and disciplinary groups are mounting efforts, large and small, that they hope will lead to more women (and minority group members) in senior positions--and less stressful lives for all academic scientists.

Responding to the excuse that there aren't enough women in the pipeline, the report points out that women have been getting more than 30% of the doctorates in social and behavioral sciences and more than 20% in the life sciences for the past 30 years. But at major research institutions, only about 15% of full professors in social, behavioral, and life science departments are women. The proportion is even worse--in the single digits--in other science departments such as physics and engineering.Minority women are all but absent from professorships.

In some fields, like physics and engineering, the proportion of female professors is low, although in line with the low number of women students in those fields, the report notes. But in chemistry and the biological sciences, women are much more rare on faculties than they are in the ranks of students. Moreover, although they don't differ from men on performance measures such as productivity, women faculty are usually paid less, promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions than men, the report states.

Bias: the elephant in the room

University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who headed the report project, said at a public briefing on 18 September that the NAS committee conducted an exhaustive review of the literature--she stressed "exhaustive"--but could find no biological difference in performance that could account for the lower representation of women in the higher echelons of academe. "So it's not a lack of talent, but unintentional biases," she said.

"They emphasize what I think is often the elephant in the room that people don't want to talk about, which is a lingering and often unconscious bias that people have toward women in science and other fields in which they are underrepresented," says Marlene Zuk, associate vice provost in charge of faculty diversity at the University of California, Riverside. "Part of it is just acknowledging that this is really difficult and involves some subtle stuff. It is going to require changing hearts and minds." Zuk's job has taught her that, despite the stereotype, academics are not necessarily liberal. "Some of the most tradition-bound people have found a home in academia and are very reluctant to change," she said.

New York Times columnist John Tierney charged in a 26 September column that the NAS report itself was biased because only one man was on the report committee. Tierney acknowledged that bias "may well exist," but went on to argue that the report ignored well-documented sex differences in career interests and abilities. But, says Maria T. Zuber, a geologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped write the report, "The report never said that there are no biological differences between women and men, but rather that those differences can't explain the under-representation of women in the professoriate relative to their numbers in graduate school in most fields." Shalala noted at the briefing that 10 men served on the 19-member review committee.

What administrators, professional groups, and funding agencies should do

"Where progress needs to be made is down in the trenches at the department level," says Zuber. What is needed in those trenches, the report says, is discussion and education about unexamined bias and effective evaluation. And that discussion and education should be integrated into existing department meetings and other professional-development efforts.

But such department-level dialog will only occur, the report says, if university presidents, trustees, and deans take the lead in changing the culture and structure of their institutions. Proposed measures include requiring academic departments to show they have conducted fair, broad, and aggressive talent searches before new hires are approved. Administrators should also adopt programs and policies that give faculty flexibility, including day care, paid parental leave, and flexible tenure clocks that allow faculty--including men--to meet family obligations.

"A lot of the recommendations don't just relate to women, they also relate to men too," says Judith Totman Parrish, dean of the College of Science at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Zuk agrees that both men and women should be treated as whole people and have their family lives acknowledged. "But the work-life balance issue has become kind of a red herring," Zuk says. "That's not what's responsible for the dearth of women in the sciences." Zuber writes (in an e-mail) that some of the most interesting comments she's gotten "have been from junior male scientists and engineers, who have noted that the committee's suggestions for 'leveling the playing field' and for balancing career and family will help them too.

The report already has had one practical outcome. It recommended that the American Council on Education (ACE), an umbrella organization for higher education, bring together its member organizations to create a permanent group for monitoring hiring practices across all institutions of higher learning. ACE has agreed to take on that convening role and has already started figuring out how to do it, says Claire Van Ummersen, ACE's vice-president. But, she cautions, it won't happen overnight: The players are all membership associations that must seek their own members' approval before taking action.

Rewarding good behavior

Top administrators may be very attentive to what happens with ACE, but faculty and their departmental administrations are likely to be more attentive to what disciplinary associations reward and emphasize, says Daryl Chubin, who directs AAAS's Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity. This includes not only who gets invited to speak at meetings and who gets awards, but also who the officers are. The report urges professional groups to enforce guidelines on inviting speakers who reflect the group's membership, to provide professional development help such as mentoring and ensure a "reasonable representation" of women on editorial boards and in other leadership positions.

Journals should examine the review process to make it fairer, including blinding their reviewers to the names--and, hence, genders and reputations--of authors on submitted papers, the report declares. Parrish likes that idea, and also favors blind review grant proposals--although she acknowledges that it's difficult to make proposal reviews truly blind.

The report urges federal funding agencies to hold mandatory meetings to educate department chairs, program officers, and review panels on how to reduce bias. It also urges federal enforcement agencies to make sure universities are complying with antidiscrimination laws and to thoroughly investigate complaints of discrimination. Shalala charged at the briefing that more energy is spent enforcing the laws on sports teams than on academic departments. Congress should hold oversight hearings to make sure agencies are working to implement existing anti-discrimination statutes, the report urges.

Down in the trenches

Despite the generally gloomy picture painted by the NAS report, some efforts, large and small, are already being made to boost women's chances of staying in academic science and engineering. Some professional organizations also are working toward changing hiring patterns. NSF's chemistry division, together with the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, sponsored and hosted a meeting earlier this year to bring chemistry department heads together to air these issues, says Donna Dean, president of the Association for Women in Science.

Zuk encourages search committees to devise a grid with boxes listing the qualifications they're looking for and how well each candidate fulfills those qualifications. "What that means is that you're requiring yourself to stick to something explicit," she says. Zuk recently started a program to give money to search committees that have already found one job candidate who is a woman or minority group member and wish to bring in an additional one. "I won't pay for the first one, but I'll pay for the second one," she said. The point is to really broaden the hiring pool instead of settling for token representation of just one candidate who is not a white male. "I'm crossing my fingers that it's going to have an effect."

NSF's competitive grants program, ADVANCE, gave 5-year awards to universities to help them overcome barriers facing women faculty in the sciences and engineering. One of the grantees is Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, which is using NSF money in its own Academic Careers in Engineering and Science program (called, of course, ACES). According to Diana Bilimoria, who heads it, Case's ACES program tries to hold deans more accountable for advancing, recruiting, and retaining faculty women. It also tries to help departments change their culture to be more female-friendly.

ACES also provides resources, tools, and strategies for individual women to help them become more savvy about their own faculty careers, Bilimoria explains. That includes hiring professional coaches to help them focus on career development, balancing work and life, prioritizing, delegating, and supervising their laboratories. The program also provides mentors, workshops, and networking opportunities. Bilimoria notes that ACES has helped change Case policies to include, for example, automatic extension of the tenure clock for childbirth or adoption--policies that apply to men as well as women. The program includes Case's medical school, but only its basic science--not clinical--departments. "Our challenge is how to extend beyond that to the rest of the university," Bilimoria says.

Will more funding help?

At the public briefing, both Shalala and Ana Mari Cauce, executive vice-provost at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of the report's co-authors, expressed optimism about the future of science employment opportunities. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, Shalala said, so jobs will be opening up. Cauce urged graduate students not to let the current employment rate discourage them; by the time they graduate, she said, things will have changed.

But even if the employment picture brightens, other factors already at work are likely to affect America's success at injecting more women into science, especially at the highest levels. "Not only are funding trends flattening, but the funding trends are operating on a very short time cycle now," says Parrish. "So sometimes, you have wholesale shifts of money into and out of certain fields." Parrish urges scientists trapped in dying fields to find ways of expanding their research into others that are better funded. "Very often, people get pigeonholed into certain types of research," says Parrish. "One of the questions I've had is whether that's more likely to happen to women."

"Getting a huge influx of support for science would help. But you know, I'm not sure it would help that much," Zuk says. "I think it might just result in the rich getting richer."

Tabitha Powledge writes from suburban Washington, D.C.

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