Report Finds Gender Bias In University R&D

Sep 25, 2006 (12:09 PM EDT)

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Women face barriers in hiring and promotion in research universities within many fields of science and engineering due in part to gender bias, according to a recent report from the National Academies.

Eliminating gender bias in universities requires immediate reform by university administrators, professional societies, government agencies, and Congress, according to the report. If academic institutions are not transformed to tackle such barriers, the future vitality of the U.S. research base and economy is in jeopardy, the report warns.

The report was sponsored by the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health, Eli Lilly and Co., National Science Foundation, Ford Foundation and the National Academies (Washington, D.C.). The Academies comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council.

The results from the report were sobering and troubling. Forty years ago, women made up only 3 percent of America's scientific and technical workers, but by 2003 they accounted for nearly one-fifth. In addition, women have earned more than half of the bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000.

"Among science and engineering Ph.D.s, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions," according to the report. "And minority women with doctorates are less likely than white women or men of any racial or ethnic group to be in tenure positions."

The following are some of the committee's key findings that underscore its call to action:

* "Studies 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 leadership positions in S&T fields."

* "Compared with men, women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions. These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures."

"Women are capable of contributing more to the nation's science and engineering research enterprise, but bias and outmoded practices governing academic success impede their progress almost every step of the way," said Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

"Fundamental changes in the culture and opportunities at America's research universities are urgently needed," she said in a statement. "The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population."

The report offers a broad range of recommendations. "Trustees, university presidents, and provosts should provide clear leadership in changing the culture and structure of their institutions to recruit, retain, and promote more women — including minority women — into faculty and leadership positions," according to the report.

"Specifically, university executives should require academic departments to show evidence of having conducted fair, broad, and aggressive talent searches before officials approve appointments," according to the report. "And departments should be held accountable for the equity of their search processes and outcomes, even if that means canceling a search or withholding a faculty position."

Other steps should be taken. "University leaders, the report adds, should develop and implement hiring, tenure, and promotion policies that take into account the flexibility that faculty members may need as they pass through various life stages — and that do not sacrifice quality to meet rigid timelines," the report says.

"Administrators, for example, should visibly and vigorously support campus programs that help faculty members who have children or other caregiving duties to maintain productive careers. At a minimum, the programs should include provisions for paid parental leave, facilities and subsidies for on-site and community-based child care, and more time to work on dissertations and obtain tenure," it added.

One recent incident underscored the problem. In July, Denice Dee Denton, chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz, jumped to her death in an apparent suicide from the 44th floor of a San Francisco building, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

"After earning multiple engineering degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she became the first tenured female faculty member in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison," according to the report. "She went on to the University of Washington as the first woman in the nation to lead an engineering college at a major university."