LAS VEGAS -- Numerous studies document the frustrations -- personal and professional  -- of women who pursue science careers in higher education. Many of these women complain about unfair treatment, as well as frustrations that come with being in the minority (sometimes the extreme minority) in their departments.
The National Science Foundation is supporting a research project to focus more attention on STEM faculty at community colleges, where men and women are about 50-50 in faculty positions over all, and where women make up 47.7 percent of STEM faculty (compared to about one third at four-year institutions). Researchers who are part of a team at Ohio University studying the issue gave an overview of initial findings here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Their major conclusions: Women in STEM faculty positions at community colleges are happy, and it's not because their jobs are somehow easier than those at four-year institutions (although they are different). The Ohio researchers are combining their national statistical analysis with in-depth interviews with small groups of women on STEM faculties at community colleges -- starting with 29 at institutions in Ohio, and then extending to other states. The analysis is complete in Ohio, and early results suggest similar findings coming from other states.
So far, the results suggest a career path that many women find satisfying. "These women are happy, they have pay equity, and there are more of them than at four-year colleges," said Cynthia Anderson, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Ohio.
While many women in science at four-year institutions have lists of grievances, Anderson said that isn't the case at community colleges. She speculated that the colleges she studied may have fewer disputes over salaries because they are unionized, and have clear rules about who gets paid what.
Christine Mattley, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio, said that "these women are saying, 'I love it here. I'm not going to leave.' "
Some left industry positions for community colleges, and some left four-year colleges. Others came directly from graduate school. At community colleges, doctorates are not required for most positions, and only 20 percent of this sample had them. Many did have research agendas, however, Mattley said.
When asked about time pressures, the women at community colleges were quick to reject suggestions that their sector makes their jobs easy. They generally have teaching loads twice those of their colleagues at research universities or liberal arts colleges. And their students have high expectations about contact with professors.
One pattern that surprised the Ohio researchers was that "an extraordinary number of the women went back to communities where they were raised," Mattley said. She speculated that these women may have had more support from extended family members and community ties than many women would have relocating to various colleges and universities around the country.
Going forward, the Ohio researchers will be studying faculty in other states. They also hope to focus on the experience of women in adjunct faculty jobs at community colleges -- the project's initial sample leaned toward those in full-time or tenure-track positions.