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Academia Told to Make Room for Women

18 September 2006 (All day)
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U.S. universities foster "a culture that fundamentally discriminates against women," says a report on the status of women in academic science and engineering issued today by the National Academies. Their underrepresentation is "deeply troubling and embarrassing," according to the report, which suggests that institutions should create a body to collect data, set standards, and ultimately monitor compliance to increase the number of women in technical fields.

"Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," cites research demonstrating that women are paid less, promoted more slowly, bypassed for honors, and subjected to implicit gender bias from both their male and female colleagues. The 18-member panel--chaired by University of Miami president Donna Shalala and made up primarily of female university presidents, provosts, and senior professors--also finds no scientific basis to the argument that inherent differences between the genders are at the root of the problem.

The fundamental issue, the panel notes, is not attracting women into science but retaining them once they are trained. For example, the report says the culture still favors academics with a stay-at-home spouse--typically a wife. Fewer than half the spouses of male faculty members in the sciences are employed fulltime, whereas 90% of the husbands of women faculty work outside the home.

The gap widens with seniority, the report notes. At leading research universities, fewer than 15% of full professors in the life sciences are women, and in the physical sciences, that figure remains in the single digits. "Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are virtually absent from the nation's leading science and engineering departments," the study adds.

To address these issues, the report proposes an "inter-institution monitoring organization" to set norms for expanding the role of women in the sciences and engineering. The organization would be similar to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which serves as an intermediary between universities and federal agencies. The American Council on Education has agreed to convene several national education organizations to "define the scope and structure of data collection," says ACE vice president Claire Van Ummersen. "This would be a way for the profession to police itself," says Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who chaired a study in 1999 focusing on the problem at her university.

Still, chemist and activist Debra Rolison of the Naval Research Laboratory, criticized the panel for not demanding strict enforcement of a 1972 law, popularly known as Title IX, that prohibits any education program or activity receiving federal funding from denying equal benefits to women. "That's the missing piece," she adds. Shalala acknowledged at a press conference that the federal government has spent more time ensuring equity on collegiate playing fields than in the laboratory. But the report's focus is "not any individual law," she later told Science. "Institutional leaders and professional societies have to make systemic changes to provide opportunities."

For a more detailed news story on this topic, please stay tuned for the 22 September issue of Science.

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