At a press conference in downtown Washington, DC, on 18 September 2006, the National Academies of Science released its most recent report on gender equity. The report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," includes recommended actions for university administrators, professional societies and higher education organizations, and government agencies and Congress.

According to National Academy materials, "Forty years ago, women made up only 3 percent of America's scientific and technical workers, but by 20003 they accounted for nearly one-fifth. Women have earned more than half of the bachelor's degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000." Despite these trends, however, the representation of women on university and college faculties does not reflect these gains.

Findings underpinning the report recommendations include the following.

  • 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 in science and technology fields;

  • 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. About 90 percent of the spouses of women science and engineering faculty are employed full time. For the spouses of male faculty, it is nearly half.

The study panel was chaired by Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami and former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shalala said, "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. 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."

Recommendations targeted at universities include a more visible commitment to gender equity from university presidents, provosts, and trustees. Moreover, the panel recommends that universities examine evaluation practices with the goal of focusing on the quality and impact of faculty contributions.

With respect to professional societies and higher education organizations, the report calls on the American Council on Education to bring together other relevant groups, such as the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, to discuss the formation of a monitoring body. Additionally, honorary societies are challenged to review nomination and election procedures to address the under-representation of women in their memberships. Scholarly journals are encouraged to examine existing processes for reviewing papers submitted for publication to determine how to minimize bias. Moreover, journals are encouraged to consider policies and practices that keep authors' identities hidden until reviews have been completed.

Finally, with respect to government agencies, the report encourages funding agencies to work with professional societies to convene "mandatory national meetings to educate university department chairs, agency program officers, and members of review panels on ways to minimize the effects of gender bias in performance evaluations."

 


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