Congressional Panel Considers Call for More Female Science Professors

May 08, 2008

Washington — For women contemplating careers as science professors, the numbers are daunting. More than half of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering these days go to women, but they run into a high hurdle when it comes to securing academic jobs. Fewer than one in three science and engineering professors are female, and the numbers for full professors drop to one in five. So Congress held a hearing today to consider how to raise those odds.

A draft bill introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, would promote the use of workshops “to increase awareness of implicit gender bias in grant review, hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for other honors based on merit,” according to a news release issued by the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. The committee has not yet released the proposed legislation, and the details of such workshops remain unclear. The workshops would be based, at least partly, on ones organized by academic chemists and by the American Physical Society, which have in the past two years convened gatherings of federal officials and the chairs of top university departments.

The legislation, titled “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act of 2008,” would also seek to gather better demographic data from federal grant-making agencies. But that may be a difficult endeavor. Lynda T. Carlson, director of the division of science-resource statistics at the National Science Foundation, told committee members that scientists who receive grants “are not, nor can they be, required to provide demographic information because of the Privacy Act.” Many scientists who win grants do not indicate the race and gender of the people working under their grants, she said. “NSF cannot support the proposed legislation as its requirements will be excessive as they exceed current data-collection capabilities,” according to a statement submitted by Ms. Carlson.

Although the hearing was devoted to the issue of female academic scientists, the witness list contained no practicing scientists, male or female. The lone academic was Donna K. Ginther, an associate professor of economics at the University of Kansas, who has studied gender differences in academic science. In her statement, she endorsed the idea of gender-bias workshops for academics and grant reviewers, but she cautioned that the sessions should be tested for effectiveness. While past workshops have focused on department chairs, Ms. Ginther said that it would be important to reach principal investigators who oversee postdoctoral fellows. Her data indicate that most women leave academic science during the postdoctoral years.

The best way Congress could help women in academic science, she said, would be to improve their access to child care. She proposed allowing universities to support child-care facilities with the indirect costs that they take from research grants made to faculty members.

At today’s hearing, Congress itself inadvertently showed how far the nation has to go in promoting the success of women in academe. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said in a statement that “effective institutional change must be systemic since bias may hide behind even the simplest language used in recommendation letters.”

His Republican colleague Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland demonstrated the power of language while smiling at the trio of female Ph.D.’s who were testifying. Mr. Bartlett hailed them as “effective representatives,” but then proceeded to call them “three very attractive women.” —Richard Monastersky