'Faring Well' or Disappearing?

WASHINGTON -- While women are underrepresented on the science faculties of research universities, they are more likely than men to be interviewed for tenure-track jobs and to receive job offers, and if they are hired and stay, they are at least as likely as men to receive tenure. Those are the conclusions of a study requested by Congress and released Tuesday by the National Academies.

June 3, 2009

WASHINGTON -- While women are underrepresented on the science faculties of research universities, they are more likely than men to be interviewed for tenure-track jobs and to receive job offers, and if they are hired and stay, they are at least as likely as men to receive tenure. Those are the conclusions of a study requested by Congress and released Tuesday by the National Academies.

The report also found that in access to resources, men and women are treated relatively equally on a range of issues: start-up packages, travel funds, and so forth, and that they spend equal proportions of their time on teaching and research. On salaries, the report found equity except at the full professor level, where women are paid on average 8 percent less than their male colleagues.

Generally, the report took a positive tone, noting considerable progress and the lack of evidence of bias against women in science. The headline on the press release said that women are "faring well" in science at research universities. "Over all the newly released data indicate important progress, and signal both to young men and especially to young women that what had been the status quo at research-intensive universities is changing," said Sally Shaywitz, co-chair of the panel that wrote the report and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity of the Yale University School of Medicine.

But the same data in the report show that in fields where larger proportions of women are earning Ph.D.'s, relatively small numbers are applying for jobs at research universities, and that the number of women coming up for tenure does not reflect their representation among assistant professors.

While members of the committee acknowledged these are areas of concern that need more research, some critics believe that the panel missed an important opportunity to explore the career patterns of female scientists -- and may be presenting too rosy a picture of the situation facing those women who seek to work at research universities. Generally, the study focuses on policies and procedures, not campus culture (although there are some references to it), and the study did not compare the treatment of women at research universities to their situation at other kinds of colleges and universities.

"This focuses on those women survivors who can last long enough to come up for promotion, and says there are no statistically significant gender inequities," said Phoebe Leboy, president of the Association for Women in Science and professor emerita of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. The report "focuses on only that sub-population of women who have the nerve to apply for these positions," and largely ignores the implications of the data showing that so many do not apply to those institutions or for any number of reasons work off the tenure track. "It's really distressing that they have ignored so many issues about women in STEM fields."

The findings were based on national surveys that examined both departmental and institutional policies and the experiences of individual faculty members in 2004 and 2005. The study examined six disciplines at 89 research universities. The table below shows some of the evidence cited by the authors to show progress, and by critics to question just how much progress has taken place.

Transition From Graduate School to the Tenure Track

Discipline % of Women Earning Ph.D.'s in Prior 4 Years Mean % of Applicants Who Are Women Mean % of Applicants Invited for Interviews Mean % of Offers to Women
Biology 45% 26% 28% 34%
Chemistry 32% 18% 25% 29%
Civil Engineering 18% 16% 30% 32%
Electrical Engineering 12% 11% 19% 32%
Mathematics 25% 20% 28% 32%
Physics 14% 12% 19% 20%

While the patterns were consistent discipline by discipline in that the applicant pool for tenure-track jobs lagged the percentage of women in the new Ph.D. pool, panel members noted (and said that they couldn't explain) that fields in which there are still very few female Ph.D.'s (such as electrical engineering and physics) see larger shares of those new Ph.D.'s apply for these jobs.

Among other findings of the study:

  • No correlation could be found between departments engaging in special tactics to recruit women (attending conferences, seeking referrals, targeted advertising) and the proportion of women who applied for openings. However, most departments appear to be engaged only in one or two such efforts -- an "anemic" effort, said Claude Canizares, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that he hoped that departments that tried multiple strategies over a period of time might see a correlation with the number of female applicants.
  • A correlation was found based on search committees. Women are more likely to apply for jobs when there are women on the search committee and/or when a woman chairs the committee.
  • No women were interviewed for 28 percent of the tenure-track and 42 percent of the tenured jobs conducted by departments that were studied.
  • When a position is first offered to a woman, 30 percent of the jobs still ended up going to men. In contrast, when a position was first offered to a man, only 5 percent of such jobs eventually were filled by women.
  • Women and men in these departments were found equally likely to chair departmental committees.
  • Women on the tenure track are more likely than men to report having mentors (57 percent vs. 49 percent).
  • Women are less likely than men are to talk with colleagues about professional topics, such as research, salary and benefits.
  • Across disciplines, men published more than women, but outcomes were equal on such measures as grant funding, national honors, and offers from other institutions.
  • Female assistant professors are less likely than male assistant professors to become tenure candidates, and they were most likely to be under-represented in fields where they account for larger shares of the faculty (biology and chemistry).
  • Women in the disciplines studied who did come up for tenure review were tenured at a slightly higher rate than men (92 percent for women and 87 percent for men). Women were more likely to be promoted when there was a smaller proportion of females among the tenure-track faculty. Discipline, "stop-the-clock" policies (which allow new parents to have period of time that don't count as their pre-tenure period), and departmental size were not associated with tenure success rates.
  • Male and female assistant professors were significantly more likely to receive tenure at public institutions (92 percent) than private institutions (85 percent).
  • No statistically significant disparities were found for promotion to full professor among the disciplines studied. (In this respect, the science disciplines may be doing better than English and foreign language disciplines, where the Modern Language Association in April documented how much longer it takes for women than men to be promoted to the highest professorial rung.)

Shaywitz of Yale said that it would be incorrect to view the data as suggesting any "leakage" in the pipeline of women in science because the figures cover only a "snapshot" and longitudinal data would be needed to track changes. (She said, however, that the research showed the need for collecting such data.) She added that she did not know why women are less likely to apply for jobs at these institutions or, if they have become assistant professors, to seek tenure. Asked about reports that many liberal arts colleges are seen as more supportive, she said that was a "fertile" area for study.

Canizares of MIT said that he saw one area where he feared research universities were becoming bad employers for both male and female scientists. He noted that with more departments expecting multiple years as a postdoc before becoming an assistant professor, new Ph.D.'s are increasingly facing the prospect of longer and longer time periods "before knowing where [they] are going to end up," and even more years before knowing if they will earn tenure.

"We are making the career less attractive for both men and women, but women have extra factors that make that time scale particularly unattractive," he said.

Leboy of the Association for Women in Science cited what she saw as flaws in the report. For example, she noted that many departmental promotions committees, if they have a junior woman in the department who seems unlikely to win tenure, will hint at that well before a tenure vote, encouraging her to move on. As a result, the success rate of men and women may not be equal after all, she said. The tenure data -- combined with the data on the numbers of assistant professors -- added up to a cause for concern, she said, not evidence of equity.

She also said she was bothered by the report explicitly stating that it wouldn't try to figure out why women with relevant Ph.D.'s aren't seeking these positions or seeking to advance to tenure. A variety of "campus culture" issues are at play, Leboy said, and deserved more attention.

"Had I been asked to ignore so many issues on such a committee [that wrote the report] I would not have served on the committee," she said. "I would not have served if all I could look at was elite universities' procedures for hiring and promotion."

The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a Harvard University-based research project focused on new faculty members, has compared the attitudes of junior professors at colleges and universities -- and found significant differences. (The comparison to the National Academies study isn't exact because COACHE surveys do not apply just to those in math and science disciplines.) Compared to university faculty, college faculty members report greater satisfaction with the extent of racial and gender diversity at their campuses and their "fit" in the department.

Cathy A. Trower, research director and co-principal investigator of COACHE, said that gender gaps in satisfaction are wider at universities than at colleges (with men more satisfied at the universities) on issues of climate and support for academics with families.

Asked about the new study from the National Academies, Trower said that "I think there may be some choice going on," with women opting to seek academic employment at places other than research universities.

She noted, for example, that reports suggest many female Ph.D.'s seek jobs at colleges or non-tenure track positions. "They may feel that they have no choice, that they need to have some quality of life," she said. And because many academic scientists who are women marry male academic scientists, and women are more likely than men to follow a partner to a new job, those women may pay a price professionally. Trower stressed that there are many issues at play, not just policies of overt discrimination.

In terms of the equity measures found by the National Academies in salary, equipment and so forth, Trower said that those issues all matter a lot -- and that equity wasn't always the norm. "It seems that the academy is getting better about what can be counted," she said.

"But that doesn't get to the heart of the matter, and to all of the things that are difficult to measure," she said. For many academic women who are frustrated by their opportunities, it's "death by a thousand papercuts" -- not any one thing, Trower said, but a combination of attitudes, about the lack of support for work/life balance, and related issues. Trower said that she looks at the National Academies data and sees "what seems like a revolving door for women in science" and "issues that need fixing."


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