Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Women in Science: Strategies for success

The New York Times published an article in yesterday's (Dec. 19) Science section about women in academic science--barriers to equitable participation and the advice they receive about overcoming hurdles. The article is called "Women in Science: The Battle Moves to the Trenches," but it will be freely available for only a week, so here are my comments, which serve as a summary.

It's not clear what precipitated this news article. Many of its references are to a September 2006 National Academies of Science report on the status of women. The NAS report repeated several well-known points, such as that although women make up more than half of graduates from biology programs, they account for only about 15% of full professors in science departments at top-tier research universities.

The challenge it offered to universities to reform academia was stronger than previous reports. It places the burden of reform squarely on the shoulders of university administrators to show that they are doing everything they can to promote parity for women, and not just to show that they are doing nothing to hold women back. It strongly recommends policies that provide for paid parental leave, on-site child care, and revised tenure clocks for parents.

The National Academies also reported that although men publish slightly more than women in the sciences, they also receive more financial support through grants and university leave, and that when this factor is controlled for, men and women publish at about the same rate.

Although bias against women's research may be small for any given project, it adds up over the course of a woman's career. Likewise, women are more likely to be assigned administrative service work, a burden that may be small at any given time but which adds up over the course of years.

The NYT also mentions an article (no citation available) which showed that letters of recommendation written for women job applicants were six times more likely to mention the candidate's private life than letters written for men. Women are more likely to be evaluated on their teaching in recommendation letters, while men are more likely to be evaluated on their research. Since top jobs often value research over teaching, this subtle bias may contribute to women's difficulty in getting top research jobs.

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