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NAS Study Finds Barriers Remain for Women Physicists

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study analyzing the barriers to hiring and promotion experienced by women in academia concluded that women in science and engineering are hindered by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia. Entitled Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, the NAS panel report called for a broad national effort to eliminate gender bias in universities in order to maximize the potential of women scientists and engineers in academia. While women now account for one-fifth of America’s scientific and technical workforce–compared to only 3% some 40 years ago, those gains are not reflected in their representation on university and college faculty.

Among the more notable findings, the NAS panel dismissed the notion that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science could be attributed to “innate” intellectual deficiencies. The report cited numerous studies that have found no significant biological differences between men and women in math and science that could account for their lower representation on faculties and in leadership positions.

The panel also found that women faculty are generally paid less and promoted more slowly than their male peers. Furthermore, such discrepancies don’t appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or other performance measures. Rather, it seems to stem from more arbitrary criteria, such as “assertiveness”–a trait which may be viewed as unacceptable in women, but desirable in men.

Nearly two dozen recommendations are cited in the report to address these issues. For instance, university administrators should require departments to demonstrate evidence of having conducted fair and broad talent searches before approving appointments. Institutions should consider forming a collaborative, self-monitoring body to recommend standards for recruitment, retention and promotion of faculty, capable of collecting data and tracking compliance across institutions. Ultimately, the kind of broad, sweeping cultural change in academia envisioned by the NAS panel must start at the top with trustees, university presidents and provosts.

In short, “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, who chaired the committee that produced the report. “Fundamental changes in the culture and opportunities at America’s research universities are urgently needed. Unless a deeper talent pool is tapped, it will be difficult for our country to maintain our competitiveness in science and engineering.”

These findings come on the heels of a 2005 international survey that found that most women physicists would choose a physics career all over again (APS News, July 2006). Yet at the same time, many had concerns about family and child-rearing responsibilities and feelings of isolation from colleagues, as well as concerns about funding, equipment and lab space. That survey was conducted by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), in conjunction with the 2005 Second International Conference of Women in Physics.

The AIP report is available online at http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/gendertrends.html. The NAS report is available online at http://national-academies.org.



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