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Academic Hiring Of Women

Study finds no discrimination, but women have to apply

by Linda R. Raber
June 8, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 23

A new report from the National Academies contradicts an earlier one from that organization on whether women in academe face discrimination in hiring, promotion, and access to resources. The current report, released last week, finds rough parity between the sexes, even though the earlier report, released in 2006, contends that women do face discrimination.

"The current report is based on data that were collected from surveys developed and designed specifically for this report," says report cochair Sally E. Shaywitz, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. "The other report had a very different methodology based on cumulative experiences of people on the report committee," she says.

The new study, "Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty," attempts to apply statistical techniques to a rather homogeneous group: men and women who apply for, accept, and remain in full-time tenured or tenure-track positions in biology, chemistry, civil and electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics departments at Research 1 (R1) universities, as classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The institutions include 89 U.S. universities with high levels of research activity and research funding of more than $40 million per year.

Fewer qualified women than men actually apply for tenure-track positions, the report says, but women fare as well as or better than men in the hiring process. Once hired, it says, women have essentially equal access to institutional resources such as lab space, start-up packages, and reduced teaching loads. And when women come up for tenure, they're more likely than men to get it, the report says. The committee made no attempt to find out what happens to female faculty who leave academic positions along the way and why they leave, or why so few women apply for academic positions in the first place.

The new study's conclusions contrast with those of the 2006 National Academies study "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," which was being conducted at the same time as the new one but by a different committee. That report stated, "Women who are interested in science and engineering careers are lost at every educational transition," and "evaluation criteria contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women." Comparison of the two studies is likely to leave many readers scratching their heads.

Stanford University chemistry professor Richard N. Zare, who was a reviewer on both studies, believes both are "honest and thoughtful presentations of the results the committees came up with." But he says, "I don't understand what's going on. It appears that progress is being made, but it is obvious that women are disadvantaged compared to men. I hear so many anecdotes that I have to believe there are still problems."


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