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Spring/Summer 2009 Vol. 9 Number 1

Table of Contents

Is the Gender Gap Narrowing?

New Data on Female Faculty in
Science and Engineering

©Dave Cutler/

Among faculty in science and engineering at research universities, women have historically been outnumbered by men — an imbalance that’s persisted even as women in many other academic fields and business made more progress.

In the past decade, many universities have publicly pledged to use their resources to correct this disparity, but concerns about the status of women remain. Spurred by such questions, Congress asked the National Research Council to examine how female academics are faring in science and engineering compared with men — a massive task for which existing data was inadequate. So the study committee fielded two national surveys of departments in six scientific disciplines at major research universities in the U.S. The surveys examined gender differences at key junctures in academic careers — being hired for tenure-track jobs, for example, and receiving tenure.

The surveys turned up some encouraging findings — chief among them that female applicants for tenure-track jobs have a higher chance of being hired than male applicants do. For instance, women made up 20 percent of applicants for positions in mathematics but accounted for 28 percent of those interviewed, and received 32 percent of the job offers. The trend also held true for decisions in favor of tenure, which tapped women as often as men, or more so.

©Peter M. Fisher/Comet/CorbisBut the news was not all positive: The survey also found that women aren’t applying for jobs at research universities at the same rates that they are earning Ph.D.s. While women received 45 percent of Ph.D.s in biology awarded by research universities from 1999 to 2003, for instance, they made up only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions at those schools. Why the gap happens — whether women are being pulled away by family responsibilities, for example, or subtly pushed away by chilly departmental climates — is a question that future research should explore. As for schools’ efforts to recruit women to apply for these jobs, they have been neither aggressive nor particularly effective, the committee observed. One strategy did seem to make a difference: having a higher number of women on the search committee, including a female chair.

So how are women treated once they’ve been hired? Women who were surveyed reported having similar access to many types of institutional resources — travel funds, for example, and research assistants to supervise. At first glance men seemed to have more lab space, but the difference disappeared when other factors, such as faculty rank and discipline, were accounted for. However, men did have greater access to equipment needed for research and to clerical support. And among full professors, men were paid about 8 percent more than women — a gap that didn’t exist among assistant and associate professors.

While women were as likely to chair committees and be part of research teams as men, they were less apt to engage in conversation on research, salary, and benefits — a gap that may make them feel more marginalized in their professional lives, the report notes.

Overall, the findings signal that positive changes are occurring at research universities, said the committee, which expressed hope that the data reflecting equity in hiring practices would encourage more women to apply for faculty positions. But it also cautioned against complacency, warning that the data should not be mistakenly interpreted as indicating that men and women faculty have reached full equality and representation.  — Sara Frueh

  Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty. Committee on Gender Differences in Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty; Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Division on Policy and Global Affairs, and Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2009, approx. 500 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11463-2; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $48.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Claude Canizares, vice president for research and Bruno Rossi Professor of Experimental Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; and Sally Shaywitz, Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences