Women on the Rise

Early this year, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made his now-famous remarks speculating that female scientists may have difficulty winning tenured faculty positions because of differences in "intrinsic aptitude."

By | November 7, 2005

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Early this year, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made his now-famous remarks speculating that female scientists may have difficulty winning tenured faculty positions because of differences in "intrinsic aptitude."

Jong-on Hahm, who directs the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering at the National Research Council, says the furor these comments engendered has actually had positive effects on the debate about discrimination against women in academic science. "A lot of people would actually like to drink a toast to him for making the issue so visible," Hahm says. "The subject used not to be discussed much except within certain circles. Now it's out there."

In the aftermath of the remarks, a number of universities, including Harvard, have taken steps to improve the climate for female scientists and other women on their campuses. Harvard formed task forces on women faculty and on women in science and engineering in February. They released recommendations for sweeping changes in May, and the university has earmarked $50 million over the next 10 years to pay for reforms.

COMMITMENT PAYS OFF

Harvard's Cambridge neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provides evidence that real change is possible. MIT undertook a series of reforms in the mid-1990s after a group of female scientists there found evidence that women were receiving lower salaries and fewer resources than their male counterparts.

In 1990, women made up only 10% of MIT's faculty, but that number had risen to 18% by the fall of 2004. In the years between 1990 and 2004, MIT appointed its first five female vice presidents. In addition, women now lead the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, the Technology and Policy Program, the Center for Environmental Health Sciences, the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center, and the Center for Space Research. Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist who had served as the provost at Yale, was appointed MIT's first female president in 2004.

Many of MIT's new female-friendly practices are actually family-friendly, too, including child-care scholarships, tenure-clock extensions, and reduced time appointments for faculty with family demands. "What we're trying to do is provide the flexibility that allows people to take care of their family issues at critical junctures so they don't have these awful choices of doing one or the other," Hockfield explains.

BEYOND THE PIPELINE

Conventional wisdom has sometimes held that fewer women than men have desirable positions in university science departments because fewer women than men pursue high-level studies in the sciences. Research suggests that this is not the case.

A study conducted at Congress' request by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year shows that the number of women pursuing degrees in science, and particularly in the life sciences, has grown considerably over the last 30 years or so. Women made up 63% of students who pursued or received bachelor's degrees in the life sciences in 1999–2000. The numbers were less robust for graduate studies, but still very strong, with women making up 51% of students pursuing or receiving degrees in the life sciences.

The GAO's findings were striking, however, when it came to how women fared in the academic job market. The report cites a 2003 study conducted by researchers at the University of Okla-homa showing that only about 15% of full professors and 25% of associate professors in biological science departments at research universities were women. The numbers were worse for other scientific disciplines, including chemistry, physics, and engineering.

"Getting more women into the pipeline isn't the major part of the problem," says Sonya Summerour Clemmons, who was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, and is now a consultant on diversity in science. "I know a network of women who have their PhDs, have their MDs, have their MBAs, and they still have problems. When you get your education, that just means that you're starting out at the bottom of another ladder. You still have to pay your dues in a man's world."

Elizabeth Ivey, president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), agrees. She says the pipeline contains enough strong female candidates that it's surprising not only that there aren't more women in full professorships, but also that there aren't more in leadership positions. "There have been enough women in the life sciences pipeline for a number of years that there should be more managers and department chairs and deans who are women."

RECRUITING ISSUES

Part of the problem is that most universities simply aren't holding their search committees and recruiters accountable for finding diverse candidates, AWIS executive director Nancy Bakowski says. "The people are out there, but they're a little harder to find, so you really have to push the recruiters or whoever you're using to look beyond their typical pool."

Diversity plans need to contain provisions for measurement and accountability, Ivey agrees. "Plans have been required in a number of institutions, but there's generally no negative consequence for not meeting the goals. Accountability won't happen unless the guy at the top pushes those beneath him in terms of, 'What have you done?"'

That issue will be addressed at Harvard, where the task forces appointed this year recommended hiring a senior vice provost for diversity and faculty development to oversee faculty appointments. Harvard said it would move to fill the position immediately.

Stanford University is also taking steps to increase oversight of search committees when it comes to diversity issues, according to vice provost for faculty development, Patricia Jones. A new policy requires the leaders of each search committee to meet with the faculty recruitment and development office to discuss diversity expectations, she notes.

However, even if academic institutions do make an effort to recruit and promote diverse candidates, changes to the top tiers of university science will likely be slow. "Given the institutional arrangements for promotions in academics, you're unlikely to see big jumps quickly," says Jerome Bentley, who chairs the economics department at Rider University and authored a 2004 study on women in science for the National Science Foundation. "The whole process takes so long: The typical tenure track is six years, and generally there's a lag between associate professor and full."

Another factor is the tenure system itself, which allows people in the highest ranks to stay put for decades. "If you have a workforce that's primarily white male and they're tenured, you can't fire them," Bentley notes. "You have to wait."

FAMILY AFFAIRS

Studies show that family demands are another major source of women's difficulties in the academic job market. "Being married and having children doesn't hurt men's careers, but it does seem to hurt women's careers," Bentley says. "We found that being married and having children explained a substantial part of lower tenure and promotion rates among women."

One solution being tried at some universities is to allow faculty members to extend the seven-year probationary period during which they establish their records for tenure by up to a year in order to give them time to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. The policy is recommended by the American Association of University Professors, which points out in its position statement that many women are hampered by the fact that "the period of most intensive work to establish an academic career coincides with prime childrearing years."

Allowing faculty members to stop the tenure clock is a step in the right direction, but it's not a panacea, warns Bakowski, because having a policy on the books doesn't necessarily mean that people who take advantage of it aren't penalized in some way.

Princeton University was concerned enough about that question that the school made a major change last spring: Its tenure-clock extensions are now automatic for both male and female faculty when a child is born or adopted. The change was made based in part on survey data showing concern among faculty that requesting an extension might be seen as a sign of weakness, according to Joan Girgus, special assistant to the dean of the faculty. "Now the onus is on the university, and there's no interpretation that can be made about it by your department, colleagues, or peers," she notes. Faculty members who don't want their tenure clocks stopped for a year while they care for a new child must submit a request to that effect.

Daycare is another essential. MIT not only offers daycare, now in a brand-new building at the center of campus, but it also gives out about $500,000 in child-care scholarships to students, faculty, and staff each year. In addition, it reserves spots for the children of junior faculty it's recruiting.

Girgus agrees that childcare is key, not only for recruiting and retaining faculty, but also for attracting top-flight graduate students and postdocs. Princeton already has two affiliated daycare centers on campus, which serve about 150 children between them, but an expansion is needed, she says. The university formed a working group last June to investigate how best to increase its daycare offerings, and it hopes eventually to double the number of children served.

Because women bear most of the burden of caring for aging family members, eldercare programs can be another important support component for female faculty. Stanford partners with a local non-profit agency to offer services to faculty and their families, including out-of-home care, social worker consultations, support groups, and hot lunches designed to meet the nutritional needs of the elderly.

SKILL BUILDING

In addition to pushing institutions to better meet women's needs, it's important to educate women themselves about what they can do to get ahead, Ivey says, noting that AWIS is planning some workshops on tricks of the trade.

One thing women can do is to publish earlier and more often. "Women researchers don't tend to publish their results until they're very near the end of their project, whereas male researchers will publish intermediate results all along the way, so they build maybe three articles on a project where women tend to have only one," she notes. Women should also aim for publication in bigger journals, Ivey adds. "They shouldn't feel that they'd better try a lesser journal first just to float the idea, because men don't do that. They go for broke."

AWIS also hopes to teach women how to be tougher negotiators and to get themselves onto the programs at major conferences. "We want to teach them some skills that they may not have because they're not being mentored," Ivey says. "It's not that the men are smarter about these things coming in, it's that the men are getting mentored."

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