WASHINGTON – While women come through Ph.D. programs in science and engineering nearly as frequently as men, studies show there are far fewer women faculty in science and engineering.
The House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education met Wednesday to investigate that gender inequality and what factors are at play.
“The under-representation of women is not a women’s issue, it’s an American issue,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Hrabowski testified alongside Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami; Kathie Olsen, deputy director of the National Science Foundation; Myron Campbell, chairman of the physics department at the University of Michigan, and Gretchen Ritter, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“People listen to money,” Hrabowski said. The other experts joined him in stating a need among colleges for more government support.
Closing the gap, Hrabowski said, “is not just the right thing to do, but it’s good for science.”
Only 28 percent of faculty in doctoral science and engineering programs are women, and only 18 percent of full professors are women, data from the National Science Foundation show.
“How is it that police departments and fire departments are more integrated than physics departments?” Campbell said. “How is the Navy more integrated?”
Biological differences between men and women do not explain the gulf, either, according to the experts and a 2006 study by the National Academies.
Instead, biases and other cultural factors often turn away women with doctoral degrees in science from becoming professors after graduation, the experts said.
“(Women) are being turned off and discouraged as they move up,” said Shalala, a former secretary of Health and Human Services.
“There’s no way that the private sector is pulling them away,” she said in response to a question from Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, who asked if better salaries in the private sector could be an explanation for the gap.
“There are so many scientists who are not aware of the problem,” Hrabowski said. “They’re good people, but they’re a product of their environment.”
The academic culture also plays a significant role in women leaving after getting an advanced degree.
“What I find is that the quality of mentoring is very uneven,” Hrabowski said, referring to the guidance doctoral students receive from advisers during their study.
“Institutions need to work with researchers to pull women in and give them the support they give men naturally.”
The National Science Foundation, since 2000, has given its “ADVANCE” grants to nearly 30 colleges to level the playing field for women in academic positions in the sciences. UMBC was one of those schools.
“I am encouraged by Congress’ interest in understanding the challenges universities face in increasing representation of tenure-track women in (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” Hrabowski said. “Those of us who have received ADVANCE grants have seen substantial progress.
“We can build on that progress,” he added.
The number of female tenure-track faculty at UMBC increased 48 percent from 2003 to 2007. The number of male tenure-track faculty increased 4 percent over that same time.
“That’s good, but obviously not ideal,” Hrabowski said. “We have a long way to go.”
Despite closing the gap, less than a quarter of those faculty members are women — 43, compared to 142 men.
Four of the five chairs in UMBC’s College of Engineering and Information Technology are men, according to the school’s Web site.