Women faring well in academic research

Women applying for jobs in science, engineering or math departments at research-intensive universities fare at least as well as men — and sometimes better — a new National Research Council report finds. A higher proportion of women applicants are brought in for interviews and a higher proportion of the women interviewed are offered jobs.

The new 5.5-year-long study, performed at the behest of Congress, looked at how men and women fare in getting hired and advancing in academic research jobs in the sciences and engineering. Based on original research, it analyzed conditions that existed in 2004 to ’05 at the nation’s top research universities. It polled 1,800 faculty in 500 research departments.

As a one-time snapshot of conditions, the new study can’t tease out trends over time to indicate how quickly conditions have been improving for women versus their male colleagues, observes statistician Alicia Carriquiry, a study member from Iowa State University. What the study does show is that once they get a job, women tend to be promoted at rates comparable to men, to receive tenure at comparable rates, to receive comparable pay, to have a comparable reaching load and to have equal access to research resources. On a personal level, however, women report experiencing more isolation on the job than do men.

Two areas where men clearly outperform women: publishing and movement into academic research. For instance, surveyed men reported publishing about 8.9 papers in the past three years; for women the figure was 7.4. But in certain fields, the discrepancy was substantially higher. In chemistry, for instance, men had published about 15.8 papers over the past three years versus 9.4 on average for women.

There also “is a significant and stubborn under-representation of women” on the academic research ladder, according to study co-chair Claude Canizares, vice president for research at MIT. In fact, he noted, there would appear to be some leakage of women from the flow of scientists into research. Overall, some half of all PhDs go to women, yet a far smaller percentage of them than men seek jobs within those universities that conduct the most research.

Canizares — along with Carriquiry and the study’s other co-chair, Sally Shaywitz of the Yale School of Medicine — spoke at a briefing this morning at the National Academy of Sciences, where the new report was released.

One area where women come out ahead is in receipt of mentoring — and value from it. Of tenure track faculty in the fields the new NRC study tracked (biology, chemistry, civil and electrical engineering, math and physics), 49 percent of men and 57 percent of women reported having a faculty mentor.

When it came to later obtaining grants, the study found, men did equally well at landing grants whether they had a mentor or not (around 85 percent for assistant professors and 90 percent for associate professors). But for women, the difference was striking: if they had no mentor, just 68 percent of assistant professors got grants, compared to 93 percent of those with mentors, Canizares notes. For associate professors, 98 percent of women with mentors obtained grants versus just 87 percent of those without.

A problem the study turned up for both men and women is the lengthening time to tenure. “In some disciplines,” notes Canizares, “it’s three to four years longer than it [had been] for senior faculty” who received tenure a decade or more earlier. “Typically now,” he says, “many disciplines are expecting people to have several post-docs before they even apply for the first job. That means that the security of knowing what part of the country you’re going to live in and whether you’re going to have a long-term job occurs when someone is in their late 30s or 40s.” And the average starting age for a researcher getting a National Institutes of Health grant: 43 years old.

Concludes Canizares, “We are basically making the [academic] career less attractive for both men and women.” He noted that women have extra factors — like taking family leave for raising young children — which lengthen the tenure- and promotion-track even more, making that time to career security ”particularly unattractive.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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