A new report from the National Research Council says the underrepresentation of women in the so-called STEM fields in higher education results from fewer applicants, and not any gender discrimination. The report’s findings suggest that research institutions should focus on cultivating young women’s interest in STEM-related subjects and recruiting them to these fields if they want a more gender-diverse faculty.

Although women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in science, technology, engineering, and math at major research universities, those women who do apply are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than those for men, according to the report, titled “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty.”

The report, with the help of two national surveys, examines how women at research-intensive universities fare compared with men during key transition points in their careers. It was sponsored by the National Science Foundation

Tenure-track and tenured faculty in six areas–biology, chemistry, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and physics–at 89 institutions in 2004 and 2005 were surveyed.

In each of those six areas, women who applied for tenure-track positions had a higher chance of being interviewed for and receiving job offers than male applicants. Women made up 20 percent of applicants for positions in mathematics, but accounted for 28 percent of those interviewed and received 32 percent of the jobs offered. The report found this to be true for tenured positions, too, with the exception of biology.

Although women had better chances of receiving interviews and job offers, the report said women are not applying for tenure-track positions at research universities at the same rate at which they are earning Ph.D.s.

For instance, while women received 45 percent of Ph.D.s in biology at research universities from 1999-2003, they accounted for only 26 percent of applicants for tenure-track positions at those schools. The research committee said further research is needed to determine why more women are not applying for those jobs.

Data in the report suggest that, on average, research institutions are becoming more effective in promoting faculty diversity, including hiring and promoting women and providing resources, said committee co-chair Claude Canizares, Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Nevertheless, we also find evidence for stubborn and persistent underrepresentation of women at all faculty ranks,” he added.

The national surveys revealed that most institutional strategies to try to increase the proportion of women in the applicant pool–such as targeted advertising and recruiting at conferences–did not show significant effectiveness, the report says. One strategy did appear to make a difference: Having a female chair of the search committee and a high number of women on the committee was associated with a higher number of women in the applicant pool.

The study committee for the report heard testimony and examined data from federal agencies, professional societies, individual university studies, and academic articles.

“Overall the newly released data indicate important progress and signal to both young men, and especially to young women, that what had been the status quo at research-intensive universities is changing,” said committee co-chair Sally Shaywitz, Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at the Yale University School of Medicine.

In terms of access to institutional resources, men and women reported comparable access, including start-up packages, travel funds, and supervision of similar numbers of post-docs and research assistants. And in general, men and women spent similar proportions of their time on teaching, research, and service. Although at first glance men seemed to have more lab space than women, this difference disappeared when other factors such as discipline and faculty rank were accounted for.

However, men appeared to have greater access to equipment needed for research and to clerical support, the report said.

In every field, women were underrepresented among candidates for tenure relative to the number of female assistant professors. In chemistry, for example, women made up 22 percent of assistant professors, but only 15 percent of the faculty being considered for tenure. Women also spent significantly longer time as assistant professors. However, women who did come up for tenure review were at least as likely as men to receive tenure.

Full-time female professors earned on average 8 percent less than their male counterparts, the report says. This difference in salary did not exist in the ranks of associate and assistant professors.

On most key measures–grant funding, nominations for awards and honors, and offers of positions at other institutions–there is little evidence of differences in outcomes. In terms of funding for research, male faculty had significantly more funding than female faculty in biology; in other disciplines, the differences were not significant.

The committee urged further research on unanswered questions, such as why more women are not applying for tenure-track positions, why female faculty continue to experience a sense of isolation, and how nonacademic issues affect women’s and men’s career choices at critical junctures.

“There is a movement toward more gender equity than noted in previous reports or often publicly appreciated. At the same time, the findings show that we are not there yet. The gap between female graduates and the pool of female applicants is very real and suggests that focus next be placed on examining challenges such as family and child responsibilities, which typically impact women more than men,” Shaywitz said.

Links:

Copies of “Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty”

National Academy of Sciences

National Research Council