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House Panel Examines Gaps in Women in Academic Sciences

On May 8, the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing on the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act (as-yet-unnumbered). Sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the bill would enact several National Academies recommendations to increase the number of women in faculty-level science and engineering positions, including workshops to increase awareness of implicit gender bias in grant review, hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for other honors based on merit; extended grant support for caregivers; and improved demographic data collection for federal grant awards.

Citing the difficulties of gathering gender-based data on women in academic science and engineering, Dr. Lynda Carlson, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS), said, “NSF cannot support the proposed legislation as its requirements will be excessive as they exceed current data collection capabilities.” She continued, “NSF currently collects annual composite information on demographics, field, award type and budget request[s], review score[s], and funding outcome[s] for NSF proposals and awards. NSF publishes a summary of these data in the annual Merit Review Report, including principal investigator (PI) demographics on proposals and awards. However, PIs are not, nor can they be, required to provide demographic information because of the Privacy Act; therefore, the demographic information is incomplete. For example, the number of PIs who submitted proposals and did not declare a race/ethnicity in 2007 is nearly as large as the number who declared minority status. In the last ten years, the proportion of new PIs who chose to report their gender has been declining.” Dr. Carlson added, “Different agencies maintain their records in quite different ways to meet their particular needs and operating procedures. SRS may have to work with individual agencies for significant periods of time to obtain more comparable data. Because of poor data quality and incomplete agency reporting, data on [the] field of S&E [science and engineering] research has not been collected as part of the Federal Support Survey since 1999.”

Dr. Carlson also testified about a Rand Corporation study on federal grants awarded by gender. “The NSF Authorization Act of 2002 [P.L. 107-368] required NSF to ‘examine differences in amounts requested and awarded, by gender, in major federal external grants’…According to the report: ‘[there are] numerous limitations in the information collected in federal agencies’ grant application and award data systems. Such limitations hinder the ability to track gender differences in federal grant funding. Better tracking of gender differences in such funding would require that all agencies awarding significant grant funding do the following: [m]aintain a data system that stores information on all grant applications and investigators, including co-investigators…[i]nclude in the application form key personal characteristics for each investigator, including gender, race and ethnicity, institution…[f]ill in missing personal information, including gender, where possible from other applications by the same investigator…[r]ecord the amount requested and awarded for each proposal and any score assigned to it by the peer reviewers…[and] [c]learly identify initial proposals and awards, supplements that involve new funding, and amendments that involve no new funding.’”

Dr. Linda Blevins, senior technical advisor in the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, discussed the use of gender-based workshops as tools to promote gender equity in academic science. “The 2005 demographics of academic chemistry departments, as reported by Chemical and Engineering News, told a striking story that motivated the design of a new workshop series. First, an impressive 50 percent of chemistry bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women and 35 percent of chemistry PhD degrees went to women. Despite these strong training numbers, only 13 percent of the faculty from the ‘top 50’ university chemistry departments in the U.S. were women. This disparity…led the chemistry community to develop a workshop concept that targeted the participation of the chairs of the top 50 university chemistry departments…The workshop used demographic data and social science to examine the underlying causes of the gender gap in university chemistry departments.”

Describing the results of a January 2006 workshop, Dr. Blevins said, “The social science presentations argued that most men and women exhibit unintended or implicit bias and that gender schemas — hidden assumptions about a person’s behavior based on gender — can slow women’s advancement in academia and other career paths…The chemistry workshop resulted in shifts in attitude among the university chemistry department chairs who participated…Before the workshop, the chairs generally felt that the principal factors limiting their ability to hire women were beyond their administrative control — factors, such as too few applicants, candidate loss to other departments, and lack of spousal employment opportunities. After the workshop, however, [department] chairs were more likely to report the…factors [limiting their ability to hire women] were those they could [control], such as low faculty commitment to hiring women and lack of financing. Additionally, chairs’ perceptions of the factors slowing the progress of women chemistry faculty changed.”

However, Dr. Blevins noted that “It was clear from the beginning that physics demographics were very different from those of chemistry: In 2005, only 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of PhD degrees in physics were awarded to women, while 2002 data showed that only about seven percent of faculty members in the nation’s top 50 university physics departments were women. Thus, in contrast to chemistry, women were underrepresented in the science of physics at every level.” She continued, “Most of the physics workshop design was similar to that of the chemistry workshop, but a session on undergraduate and graduate education was added to address the demographic imbalance.”

“My research shows that women who have children are less likely to enter academic science careers,” said Dr. Donna Ginther, associate professor of economics and director of the Center for Economic and Business Analysis at the University of Kansas. She continued, “The single most important step Congress can take to fulfill the potential of women in academic science is to allow universities the opportunity to count child care facilities toward indirect costs in order to expand availability of child care for academic caregivers.” Dr. Ginther added, “I find that gender differences in hiring are largely explained by the presence of children — mothers are less likely to obtain tenure-track jobs in science and social science. Once women are on tenure track, we find no significant gender differences in promotion to tenure or full professor in the sciences. However, women are much less likely to get tenure or be promoted to full professor in the social sciences, especially in economics. Finally, I find that female full professors in the sciences earn significantly less than men and the gap is not fully explained by observable characteristics. Although I document substantial gender gaps in promotion and salaries, I cannot rule out the fact that productivity differences explain the salary gap in science and the promotion gap in social science. Also, the results [of an upcoming study] suggest that factors related to marriage and children during the postdoctoral period reduce the number of women in tenure-track academic science. Until we have better data, as an economist, I am not in a position to conclude that bias is the sole determinant of the gender gap in science.”

Dr. Ginther added that more data is needed to understand gender disparities. “First and foremost, we need information on academic productivity measured by publications, citations, and journal impact in order to discern whether productivity differences explain the gender gap. Second, information on the size and duration of federal grants would provide another indication of scientific productivity…Finally, patent applications and patents granted from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office could be included in the data set…Additional data beyond productivity would provide greater insight into the underrepresentation of women in science. To understand the effect of marriage and children during the postdoctoral period on the gender gap in obtaining a tenure-track job, new questions would need to be added to the SDR [Survey of Doctoral Recipients] survey instrument. These would include: [n]umber, length, and institutional affiliation of postdoctoral appointments; [s]pouse information, including education, employment, and earnings; and [c]hildcare and housework time. These series of questions would allow researchers to determine whether the postdoctoral process, work-family tradeoffs, or a combination of both lead to fewer women in academic science.”

Chair Brian Baird (D-WA) asked whether a cost analysis of counting child care costs toward a university’s indirect costs had been performed. Dr. Ginther responded that while the National Institutes of Health has indicated that it is permissible to use funds for child care facilities, no analysis of the costs had been done.

Ranking Member Vern Ehlers (R-MI) asked Dr. Ginther about the work-family tradeoffs women scientists face. Dr. Ginther noted that women tend to leave the academic sciences during the period between earning their doctoral degrees and obtaining tenure-track jobs. She described the decision to leave the sciences during the postdoctoral phase as a “permanent” decision, as it affects the ability to publish and conduct research, both of which are necessary to obtain tenure. However, she noted that her research did not show a clear distinction among female or male scientists once they had achieved tenure or a tenure-track job.

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