Monday, September 18, 2006

Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

The report, by the National Academy of Sciences says:

1. Women have the ability and drive to succeed in science and engineering. Studies of brain structure and function, of hormonal modulation of performance, of human cognitive development, and of human evolution have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions in these fields. The drive and motivation of women scientists and engineers is demonstrated by those women who persist in academic careers despite barriers that disproportionately disadvantage them.

2. Women who are interested in science and engineering careers are lost at every educational transition. With each step up the academic ladder, from high school on through full professorships, the representation of women in science and engineering drops substantially. As they move from high school to college, more women than men who have expressed an interest in science or engineering decide to major in something else; in the transition to graduate school, more women than men with science and engineering degrees opt into other fields of study; from doctorate to first position, there are proportionately fewer women than men in the applicant pool for tenure-track positions; active recruiting can overcome this deficit.

3. The problem is not simply the pipeline. In several fields, the pipeline has reached gender parity. For over 30 years, women have made up over 30% of the doctorates in social sciences and behavioral sciences and over 20% in the life sciences. Yet, at the top research institutions, only 15.4% of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8% in the life sciences are women—and these are the only fields in science and engineering where the proportion of women reaches into the double digits. Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are virtually absent from the nation’s leading science and engineering departments.

4. Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering. Considerable research has shown the barriers limiting the appointment, retention, and advancement of women faculty. Overall, scientists and engineers who are women or members of racial or ethnic minority groups have had to function in environments that favor— sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently—the men who have traditionally dominated science and engineering. Well-qualified and highly productive women scientists have also had to contend with continuing questioning of their own abilities in science and mathematics and their commitment to an academic career. Minority-group women are subject to dual discrimination and face even more barriers to success. As a result, throughout their careers, women have not received the opportunities and encouragement provided to men to develop their interests and abilities to the fullest; this accumulation of disadvantage becomes acute in more senior positions. These barriers have differential impact by field and by career stage. Some fields, such as physics and engineering, have a low proportion of women bachelor’s and doctorates, but hiring into faculty positions appears to match the available pool. In other fields, including chemistry and biological sciences, the proportion of women remains high through bachelor’s and doctorate degrees, but hiring into faculty positions is well below the available pool.

5. A substantial body of evidence establishes that most people—men and women— hold implicit biases. Decades of cognitive psychology research reveals that most of us carry prejudices of which we are unaware but that nonetheless play a large role in our evaluations of people and their work. An impressive body of controlled experimental studies and examination of decision-making processes in real life show that, on the average, people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications, are less likely to ascribe credit to a woman than to a man for identical accomplishments, and, when information is scarce, will far more often give the benefit of the doubt to a man than to a woman. Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research shows that they are not exempt from those tendencies.

Read the entire executive summary of the report online here.

The 5th point is one that Elizabeth Spelke used to good effect in her epic battle with Steven Pinker, in which she smited evolutionary psychology Tales of Manly Superiority with the mighty Scimitar of Data.

I see the ever-awesome Ann Bartow, feminist law professor has also blogged about the report.