The National Science Foundation (NSF) last week released its biennial report, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, which provides a snapshot (as of 2010) of the participation of those groups which are underrepresented in science and engineering education and employment in the United States. The report, which takes its data primarily from surveys conducted by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics and is mandated by the 1980 Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act, reports no startling jumps or dips in participation in science and engineering by underrepresented minority (URM) groups, but it does show that URMs are slowly—in some cases very slowly—catching up with their white peers, except for in a couple of fields.
"The trends are very slow," the report's primary author, Jaquelina Falkenheim, a senior science resources analyst with the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators Program, tells Science Careers in an interview. "It's very gradual. I wouldn't say there's anything radically different from 2 years ago."
The report reveals a depressing trend for [underrepresented minorities] rising to full professorships: Their share of these positions hasn't improved much in nearly 20 years.
A slow rise
The report finds that minority science and engineering students continue to grow in their percentage of total degrees earned: black, Hispanic, or American Indian (the groups designated as URMs) students now earn 17.5% of all bachelor's degrees, 13% of all master's degrees, and 7% of all doctorate degrees in the sciences and engineering. Notably, while the number of conferred minority bachelor's and master's degrees have continued to grow modestly but steadily since 2000, the number of doctorate degrees earned by URMs has essentially remained flat during the same time period.
Psychology, social science, and computer science are the primary drivers in the growth in the number of science and engineering bachelor's degrees earned by URMs; their representation in each discipline has grown by 4% to 5% since 2000. In contrast, the percentages of URMs earning engineering and physical sciences degrees have been flat since 2000. The share of URMs earning degrees in mathematics has fallen by about 2%.
The report found that unemployment rates were higher for URMs in 2010 than they were for white men and women, with the highest rates of unemployment being among Asian women.
Why? Asian women were more likely than either white men, white women, or URMs (male or female) to cite family responsibilities. Across all races, women were significantly more likely to say that family responsibilities drew them away from work. White men were the most likely to report retirement as their reason for not working. Layoffs and "job not available" were minor but significant reasons for unemployment, especially among Asians (men and women) but also among URMs.
It probably won't come as a shock to anyone who's ever attended a faculty meeting that the science and engineering workforce is made up mainly of white men; they compose fully half of working scientists and engineers. White women make up 18% of the science and engineering workforce, and Asian women another 5%. Collectively, underrepresented minority women make up just 5% of the science and engineering workforce.
Academia is even whiter: White men and women make up 75% of all faculty members at 4-year institutions and 73% of all faculty members at university research institutes. The report reveals a depressing trend for URMs rising to full professorships: Their share of these positions hasn't improved much in nearly 20 years. In 1993, about 4% of all full professors across all institutions and 2.5% of all full professors at Research I institutions were URMs; in 2010, those numbers rose to just 6% and 4%, respectively.
There is one area where white men don't lead the pack: At 4-year academic institutions, the group with the highest median salary 13 or 14 years after earning a Ph.D. is Asian men, who earn close to $93,000. The next highest-earning group was white men, at $83,000, followed by white women, Asian women, and URM men and women clustered around $75,000.
That's a big change from the early-career data: One to 2 years after earning a Ph.D., Asian men are the lowest-earning group. They shoot to the top position sometime between years 3 and 4 and 5 and 6. Why? It could be a sort of survivor bias in which Asian men who stick around are very successful, while the others leave science and engineering. The data could also reflect changes over time: Perhaps Asian men are more numerous in the less experienced cohorts because their numbers have increased in the last few years, which could bring down the group's median salary during those early years.
Interestingly—and depressingly—the trend is just the opposite for URM women: They start out as the top-earning group, but 13 or 14 years later they share the bottom position with Asian women.
The number of people with disabilities who earn science and engineering degrees is on the rise; sometime between 2007 and 2008, people with disabilities began to earn more degrees in science and engineering than in other fields. However, unemployment and being out of the labor force are much more common among scientists and engineers with disabilities than among their peers without disabilities.
While retirement ranks as the primary reason for their unemployment, people with disabilities are about 35% more likely than others to report chronic illness or permanent disability as their reason for unemployment.
The NSF report highlights how slow and incremental the progress has been toward making the U.S. science and engineering student population and workforce reflect the country's population. With a few exceptions, URM representation has grown in the various fields and disciplines, but the progress has been glacial. The report suggests that while efforts by research institutions and advocates are paying off, more effort and time is needed before women, minorities, and people with disabilities are fully represented in the ranks of scientists and engineers.