WHY DISPARITIES MATTER
Interest in studying the disparities between the careers of male and female faculty is widespread. Government agencies, legislators, and organizations, including many professional societies, have a vested interest in promoting science and engineering education and careers and encouraging a diverse set of students and graduates to enter and remain in S&E. Administrators in the academic community need benchmarks to help set the context in which universities conduct their own self-examinations—as many already do. S&E students considering academia among their career options are seeking better information about career prospects and challenges.
Why is an assessment needed now? Three reasons support this. First, the nature of the academic profession is changing in several important ways, including the composition of the profession, reward structure, and professional activities. Due in part to the diminishing financial resources and increasing costs faced by higher education institutions, hiring into tenure-track positions has slowed, while the number of part-time, temporary, and off-track positions has increased. Such changes may affect female academics differently than male academics.
Second, substantial efforts to increase women’s participation as faculty in higher education have been underway for three decades. These include programs and policies of the federal government, professional societies, and their universities and individual academic departments. At the federal level, one example is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) ADVANCE program. Scientific and professional societies focused on women generally or in specific disciplines have collected relevant data and undertaken programs to support women in the profession (e. g., the Association for Women in Science [AWIS], the Society of Women Engineers [SWE], the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics [CSWP], and the Caucus for Women in Statistics). Higher education institutions have conducted gender equity studies and developed work-life policies for faculty and staff. An assessment of changes in faculty composition as well as policies and outcomes related to faculty careers is one step in evaluating these efforts.
Finally, where gender disparities exist and women are underrepresented among S&E faculty, negative consequences result that require policy solutions. Substantial resources go into producing a Ph. D. in S&E. The untapped potential of fully trained and credentialed women, as well as the women who are interested in S&E but choose not to pursue degrees because of obstacles, real or perceived, represents an important economic loss—one a competitive United States cannot afford. As Senator Ron Wyden (2003) stated:
A report from the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security to 2025 warned that America’s failure to invest in science and to reform math and science education was the second biggest threat to our national security, greater than that from any conceivable conventional war. America will not remain the power it is in the world today, nor will our people be as healthy, as educated, or as prosperous as they should be, if we do not lead the world in scientific research and engineering development. To make our country better, to improve our national security and quality of life, we need to encourage people to go into these disciplines. Women represent a largely untapped resource in achieving this vital goal.
Similarly, Neal Lane, former Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, remarked to the Summit on Women in Engineering (1999) that “we simply need people with the best minds and skills, and many of those are women.” This view was echoed by leaders of nine top research universities in a meeting at MIT in 2001 to discuss women faculty in science and engineering. A joint statement issued by the participants noted, “Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all creative talent available. We recognize that barriers still exist to the full participation of women in science and engineering” (Campbell, 2001b).
A more inclusive workforce may be more innovative and productive than one which is less so. As Arden L. Bement, Jr., Director of the National Science Foundation, said in 2005:
Year by year, the economic imperative grows for broadening, empowering, and sharpening the skills of the entire U. S. workforce—just to remain competitive in the global community. This fresh talent is our most potent mechanism for technology transfer to our systems of innovation. Fortunately, we have a fount of untapped talent in our women, underrepresented minorities and persons with
disabilities. Our need to broaden participation and increase opportunity is critical, for both the science and education communities and the nation.
“Having scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds, interests, and cultures assures better scientific and technological results and the best use of those results.” (Lane, 1999). If, for example, women approach the process of S&E teaching or research differently or generate different, important outcomes (findings, publications, patents, etc.), then their relative exclusion somewhat diminishes the potential of academia (Xie and Shauman, 2003:footnote 2). A comparison of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) indicates that when faculty emphasized effective educational practices, students tended to engage more in those practices. Interestingly, the FSSE found women were more likely than men to value and use effective educational practices (Kuh et al., 2004).
“Academic institutions play a pivotal role in preparing the science and engineering work force, and their faculty and leaders serve as intellectual, personal, and organizational role models that shape the expectations of future scientists and engineers,” said Alice Hogan, NSF’s former ADVANCE Program Manager. “Ensuring that the climate, the policies and the practices at these institutions encourage and support the full participation of women in all aspects of academic life, including leadership and governance, is critical to attracting students to science and engineering careers” (Harms, 2001).
Women are students before they enter the workforce. Female faculty, by acting as role models, produce the next generation of scholars and are associated with greater production of female S&E students. According to Trower and Chait (2002:34), the “most accurate predictor of subsequent success for female undergraduates is the percentage of women among faculty members at their college.” Finally, there are legal prescriptions prohibiting discrimination and questioning the propriety of disparities (see NAS, NAE, and IOM, 2007 for a review of antidiscrimination laws). The Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 all focus on prohibiting sex discrimination. Title IX is a particularly relevant piece of legislation, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in federally assisted education programs or activities. Most frequently invoked to promote equal access to athletic programs, Title IX also covers employment, and a 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report suggested efforts to enforce compliance with Title IX should be applied more broadly to educational institutions. The Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 1980 declares “it is the policy of the United States that men and women have equal opportunity in education, training and employment in scientific and technical fields.” As Lane (1999) noted, “Careers in science and engineering are immensely rewarding, and all Americans should have the opportunity to participate—it’s what America is all about.”