Women face barriers to hiring and promotion in research universities in many fields of science and engineering, according to a new report from the National Academies’ Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The National Academies include the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council.

Forty years ago, women comprised only 3 percent of America’s scientific and technical workers, but by 2003 they accounted for nearly one-fifth, the report says. In addition, women have earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000. However, their representation on university and college faculties fails to reflect these gains. Among science and engineering Ph.D.s, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions.

"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," says Donna E. 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. The United States should enhance its talent pool by making the most of its entire population."

The committee offered about two dozen recommendations that it says, "if implemented and coordinated across public and private sectors, as well as various institutions, would improve workplace environments for all employees while strengthening the foundations of America’s competitiveness." Among the recommendations are the following:

  • University executives should require academic departments to show evidence of having conducted fair, broad, and aggressive talent searches before officials approve appointments. 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.
  • University leaders 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.

Following are some of the committee’s key findings that it says 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 science and technology 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.
  • Measures of success underlying performance-evaluation systems are often arbitrary and frequently applied in ways that place women at a disadvantage. "Assertiveness," for example, may be viewed as a socially unacceptable trait for women but suitable for men. Also, structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial support from their spouses. Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a "wife" is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. Today, about 90 percent of the spouses of women science and engineering faculty are employed full time; only about half of the spouses of male faculty are employed full time.

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