Gender Bias in Academe

By Agogino, Alice Merner | ASEE Prism, November 2006 | Go to article overview
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Gender Bias in Academe

Agogino, Alice Merner, ASEE Prism

A stronger effort must be made to keep female faculty members in science and engineering.

LAST YEAR, Harvard President Larry Summers speculated that innate gender differences may explain why fewer women than men reach top university science and engineering positions. Summers' remarks caused a firestorm of criticism that eventually cost him his job.

I co-authored a study of women in academe that was released by the National Academy Press, titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." Summers' firestorm challenged us to scientifically address the question: Is there a biological basis for the low number of women in science and engineering and its professoriate?

The findings detailed in this report revealed that structural and implicit gender bias-not biological differences between the sexes-is the root cause of the gender gap in science and engineering. The talent is there and in increasing numbers in many fields, but at each critical transition in the post-doctoral pipeline women drop out or are less likely to be considered or promoted in academic positions.

The report did show that biology makes a huge difference -not in innate abilities but rather in disadvantaging women in de facto discriminatory structures that were designed for men's biology. During a woman's prime child-bearing years, potential faculty members complete a Ph.D. and spend six or more years in the tenure clock. Gaps due to childbirth could make or break a woman's academic career during this period, forcing women in their late 20s and early 30s into making painful choices between tenure-track and a family. Not only is this a choice male peers aren't required to make, men's academic success actually increases with marriage and family. Women in other high-stress, highperformance jobs, such as medicine and law, are much more likely to have children than are women faculty. Unlike other professions, academe suffers from inadequate childcare, a rigid tenure clock, gendered metrics of success and a chilly climate among colleagues and administrators.

In addition to structural barriers, the report highlighted areas of implicit discrimination by both men and women. These findings resonated with the shockingly intense dissatisfaction I heard from women faculty who participated in a focus group I co-organized as part of the NAE Engineer 2020 project.

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