The 1999 report, A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, created a new level of awareness of the special challenges faced by female faculty in the sciences. Although not the first examination of the treatment of female faculty, this report marked an important historical moment, igniting interest in the difficulties experienced by many women, particularly those at the higher levels of academia. Since the release of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report, many other institutions have studied equity issues regarding their faculty, and several have publicly pledged to use their resources to correct identified disparities. Although academic departments, institutions, professional societies, and others have paid more attention to the topic in the past 10 years, some experts are concerned that remedial actions have approached a plateau.
Unquestionably, women’s participation in academic science and engineering (S&E) has increased over the past few decades. In the 10 years prior to the start of this study, the number of women receiving Ph. D.s in science and engineering increased from 31.7 percent (in 1996) to 37.7 percent (in 2005). The percentage of women among doctoral scientists and engineers employed full-time, while still small, rose from 17 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2003. However, women continued to be underrepresented among academic faculty relative to the number receiving S&E degrees. In 2003, women comprised between 18 and 45 percent of assistant professors in S&E and between 6 and 29 percent of associate and full professors.
In 2002, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space of the U. S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, convened three hearings on the subject of women studying and working in science, mathematics, and engineering. Soon after, Congress directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to contract with the National Academies for a study assessing gender differences in the careers of science and engineering faculty, based on both existing and new data. The study committee was given the following charge:
Assess gender differences in the careers of science, engineering, and mathematics (SEM) faculty, focusing on four-year institutions of higher education that award bachelor’s and graduate degrees. The study will build on the Academy’s previous work and examine issues such as faculty hiring, promotion, tenure, and allocation of institutional resources including (but not limited to) laboratory space.
The committee interpreted its charge to imply three tasks: (1) update earlier analyses, (2) identify and assess current gender differences, and (3) recommend methods for expanding knowledge about gender in academic careers in science and engineering. It developed a series of guiding research questions in three key areas to organize its investigation: (1) academic hiring, (2) institutional resources and climate, and (3) tenure and promotion.
The committee also limited its exploration of science and engineering to the natural sciences and engineering, defined here as the physical sciences (including astronomy, chemistry, and physics); earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; mathematics and computer science; biological and agricultural sciences; and engineering (in all its forms).