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The good – and bad – news on gender differences among science faculty

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2009
Gary Boas,

Women who apply for tenure-track positions at research universities are more likely than men to be interviewed and offered a job, but the number of women who apply for the positions is still lower than the number who earn doctorates in the sciences, according to a congressionally mandated report by the National Academies looking at the fortunes of women at research-intensive universities with respect to men at the same key transition points in their careers.

A recent congressionally mandated study assessed gender differences among faculty at research universities across the US. The study found that women are faring well in some areas, but that inequalities still exist in others.

The report is based on the results of two surveys of tenure-track and tenured faculty at 89 institutions across the US, in six disciplines: biology, chemistry, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering and physics. It also reflects testimony and data from various federal agencies, professional societies, individual university studies and academic articles.

For example, the report found that, although only 20 percent of those who applied for tenure-track positions in mathematics were women, women accounted for 28 percent of those interviewed and a full 32 percent of those offered jobs.

Women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool, however, and the discrepancy is greater in those fields where higher percentages of women are earning doctorates. For instance, while women were awarded 45 percent of the doctorates conferred in biology by research-intensive universities between 1999 and 2003, only 26 percent of those who applied for tenure-track positions were women.

What accounts for this discrepancy? “Our data suggests that, on average, institutions have become more effective in using the means under their direct control to promote faculty diversity, including hiring and promoting women and providing resources,” said study committee co-chairman Claude Canizares, Bruno Rossi professor of physics and vice president for research at MIT in Cambridge.

The proportion of women in the applicant pool is not under their direct control, however. Many institutions have sought to increase the number of women who apply for tenure-track positions – through targeting advertising and recruiting at conferences, for example – but these efforts have not proved especially effective.

The report looked at other areas as well, hoping to assess gender differences in the various corners of research institutions. The other areas included access to institutional resources, such as startup packages, travel funds and numbers of postdocs and research assistants; tenure; salary; climate and interaction with colleagues; and outcomes, with respect to grant funding, nominations for awards and honors, and job offers by other institutions. The study committee found varying degrees of gender difference in these additional areas.

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