The recent report (requested by Congress and released by the National Academies) on women in science faculties at research universities offers some encouraging news: there are advances at these universities with regard to hiring and promoting women.
Most would agree that there has been progress in reaching gender equity in the sciences. The report does not, however, provide evidence for a lack of gender bias in these institutions (or in science in general). In stating that, “For the most part, men and women faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university…” the report comes to misleading conclusions about the state of science. Research on gender and science reveals considerable complexity and suggests many layers of reality.
Women continue to get fewer Ph.D.’s in the sciences than do men and they apply for fewer of the positions at research universities. There is considerable evidence of continued gender bias in science education and occupations.
Because research universities are beginning to interview, hire, and promote more women does not mean that the culture of science is changing in any radical way. Sociologists have shown that even when elites bring in new members (from different race and sex groups) they often recruit new members that think and act in ways that are similar to the elite.
In order to understand the complex situation of women in the sciences, we must supplement the hiring and promotion data with interview data. These “open-ended” interviews would allow women scientists to describe the situation in their own words. Even this is tricky given the tendency toward bias and socially acceptable responses when collecting data on sensitive issues involving race and sex.
Researchers who have interviewed women scientists hear reports about being harassed and ignored and unable to have the kind of family lives that they would’ve wanted. Women scientists report having to act like men in order to get ahead. They see advantages for men in networking and opportunity systems.
Interviews with women scientists suggest that many of the gendered interactions in their work environments are not official policies and procedures but far more subtle day to day interactions and work environments.
It would have been interesting to include questions and measures (in this report by the National Academies) that were similar to those used by an earlier MIT study. This would have been helpful in assessing change.
Finally, it appears as if the recently released study of women on science faculties paid little or no attention to the issue of race. Race and sex interact in important ways in the development and retention of scientists. I would be curious to see how many of the women scientists who were hired and promoted were women of color.
Although recent research shows women of color are very interested in science, they sometimes feel like they are “swimming against the tide” because of race and gender structures in the sciences.
The National Academies report is a good start. However, in order to fully understand the situation of women scientists, we need to look at the full range of universities and science occupations with multiple research methods and with an understanding of the complexity of gender structures within organizations.
Sandra L. Hanson is the author of Swimming Against the Tide: : African American Girls and Science Education http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1904_reg.html