Female Faculty and the Sciences

Congressional panel considers recruitment and retention issue, while Stanford study examines impact of low female participation on undergraduate math, science and engineering majors.
October 18, 2007

During a Congressional hearing focused on the recruitment and retention of female faculty members in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields Wednesday, witnesses discussed how the federal government can combat the underrepresentation of women through targeted grants and incentives -- and even the creation of a new quasi-governmental agency that would expand the enforcement of Title IX, the landmark 1972 gender equity law, to better encompass academic practices.

“The original intent of Title IX was to ensure equal educational opportunity for both sexes. Yet, relatively little has been done outside of the arena of athletics to make that mandate meaningful,” said Gretchen Ritter, director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She pointed out in her written testimony that while the Government Accountability Office did ask granting agencies to ensure that grant recipients comply with Title IX in 2004, “what this might mean in practice and whether such compliance reviews are being conducted is not entirely clear.”

“I know a lot about Title IX but more because of sports programs than educational programs and that’s something that Congress can easily fix,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami and chair of the National Academies committee that wrote the recent report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering."

“We need an organization like the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] that holds us accountable,” Shalala added -- an entity situated somewhere between government and higher education.

Wednesday’s hearing of the House of Representatives Science Subcommittee on Research and Science Education focused on the end of the pipeline, so to speak -- the representation of women within the faculty ranks. According to 2003 National Science Foundation data, women hold about 28 percent of all full-time science and engineering faculty positions -- representing 18 percent of full professors, 31 percent of associate professors and 40 percent of assistant professors. Despite growth in the Ph.D. pool, faculty appointments, particularly at the senior levels, are still lagging: While women now constitute more than 50 percent of Ph.D. students in the life sciences, for instance, and, in 2003, made up 42 percent of the entire pool of life science Ph.D. recipients within the six preceding years, they represented just 34 percent of assistant professor appointments.

"What we learned [in researching the "Beyond Bias" report] was the pools are there for the first time," Shalala said. "It's not the pool issue anymore. It's our behavior."

“Entire campuses have been dozing on this issue,” Kathie L. Olsen, deputy director of the NSF, said in prefacing her remarks about the foundation's ADVANCE Institutional Transformation awards. “Targeting funding for individuals simply did not go far enough. What we needed was a full, institution-wide shakeup to bring about results.”

The ADVANCE grants -- awarded to 58 institutions since the program began in 2001 -- support systemic, institutional changes that increase the representation of women in academic engineering and science positions, and several witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing lauded their effectiveness so far. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, for instance, the number of female tenure-track faculty has increased 48 percent from fall 2003, when the university's ADVANCE Program began, from 29 to 43. In that same time period, the number of male tenure-track faculty increased by 4 percent, from 137 to 142.

The university has been involved with revising its policies and also establishing targeted programs to provide mentors for female STEM hires. Yet, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, UMBC’s president, described the major advances as happening in the form of honest conversations on the faculty level. “Many of the policies that can help minorities in science can help all students in science. Many of the policies that help junior women help senior faculty,” Hrabowski said, noting how easily people can become defensive when discussing new policies perceived as benefiting another group. Getting faculty buy-in through such conversations is critical, Hrabowski said -- and, given who has traditionally dominated in the academy, that means that “the power rests in the hands of white males."

Other strategies for the recruitment and retention of female faculty described at Wednesday’s hearing include offering childcare grants for professional conferences, offering flexible tenure timelines for faculty with young children, addressing salary equity issues (the NSF's Olsen recalled an unsettling moment in her own academic history when, as the co-principal investigator on a research project, she was shocked to learn that a male postdoc assigned to her was making more money than she was), reading letters of recommendation with an attention to possible gender bias, providing extensive postdoctoral fellowship support to attract a broader applicant pool, and broadening faculty searches beyond highly specialized areas that may only have a couple graduates a year. In addition to championing those latter three approaches, Myron Campbell, chair of the University of Michigan’s physics department, described a more general need to change subtler climate conditions.

When Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, asked toward the end of the hearing what sort of “hammer” Congress might be able to swing to effect swifter change in the nation’s science, math and engineering departments, he was quickly reminded of academe’s distaste for directives from above -- but also of Congress’ ultimate power regardless. “Hammers don’t work the same way in universities, but money does talk,” UMBC’s Hrabowski said, mentioning incentives that could be tied to federal NSF and National Institutes of Health funding.

“Institutions listen to the national science infrastructure," he said, "because they have the money.”

The Impact of Gender Imbalances

Meanwhile, a bit lower down the pipeline, on the undergraduate level, a new study by three Stanford University researchers published by Psychological Science this month finds that even highly confident women with science and math expertise can be negatively affected by their minority status in the STEM fields.

In “Signaling Threat: How Situational Cues Affect Women in Math, Science, and Engineering Settings,” Mary C. Murphy, Claude M. Steele and James J. Gross examine whether situational cues -- in this case, a promotional video for a math, science and engineering (MSE) conference featuring more men than women -- can lead female undergraduate majors in those fields to experience "social identity threat," defined as “a broad threat that people experience when they believe that they may be treated negatively or devalued in a setting simply because of a particular social identity they hold.”

The researchers showed male and female junior and senior majors two videos, one in which males outnumbered females 3 to 1 -- the ratio meant to replicate real-world ratios of males to females in math and science -- and one in which the ratio was 1 to 1. In addition to tracking statistically significant differences in physiological responses, the authors conclude that women who watched the video with the gender imbalance expressed a lower sense of belonging and less desire to participate in the conference than did females who watched a video featuring gender parity, while men were generally unaffected by the situational cue (but males, interestingly, were likewise more interested in participating when the gender ratio depicted on the video was equal).

"We controlled for competence, motivation, performance, ability and you're still finding these effects," said Murphy, now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. Not only that, but the women in the study were already committed to math and science fields and, three or four years into their undergraduate science degrees, probably weren't encountering such an imbalanced picture for the first time -- suggesting perhaps that women don't just "get used to" the gender imbalances.

"In contrast to biological and innate and socialization explanations," for the low participation of women in science, "we have to start asking what about the situation can be contributing to the underrepresentation?" Murphy said. "We need to start looking at these situational factors that seem innocuous to some people but to other groups have tremendous meaning and impact."


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