Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

The New Landscape of Gender Imbalance in the STEM Fields

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By: Danielle Daee

Although women represent a little more than fifty percent of the U.S. population, they are traditionally underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.  Although the imbalance has significantly improved in the last 20 years1, women continue to be significantly underrepresented (compared to the number of advanced degrees awarded) in most STEM academic positions.  According to the National Science Foundation these discrepancies boil down to four key factors, which provide the foundation for their ADVANCE funding program2:  (1) organizational constraints of academic institutions, (2) work-life balance demands, (3) implicit or explicit bias, and (4) an underrepresentation of women in academic leadership and decision-making positions.

In an article published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences3, Ceci and Williams call for a redistribution of the gender funding away from the historic causes of gender imbalance, namely bias.  After reviewing 20 years worth of data, the authors reveal that recent analyses supporting a gender bias do not hold up to statistical scrutiny when properly controlled.  These findings suggest that biased practices in interviewing, hiring, and reviewing are problems of the past and have been largely eliminated by gender equality campaigns.  The authors further suggest that women are underrepresented in STEM academic positions largely due to their own constrained and free choices.  These choices (which include deferral of careers to raise children, career moves/job searches affected by two-body problems, elderly parent care, enhancing work-home balance, etc.) can be both freely made and/or constrained by society, institutional hindrances (i.e. the tenure clock), or biology (fertility timelines and child-bearing responsibilities).

The family-based choices highlighted by Ceci and Williams ring true for many female academics and are in-line with two of the ADVANCE funding principles (organizational constraints and work-life balance).  Ceci and Williams make a compelling argument for a shift in gender bias funding to address these constrained choices.  Taking this argument a step further, funding for innovative approaches to make academic institutions and the tenure process more family friendly for both sexes could lead to a more positive transformation of the academic climate.  Unfortunately for many tenure-track investigators, the tenure clock often coincides with the enhanced responsibility of caring for young children.  Because women often assume caregiver roles, these challenges disproportionately affect women.  Academic institutions are already implementing tenure extension policies for family formation, but encouraging both men and women to partake in these extensions could relieve the stigma associated with such policies and balance the caregiving responsibilities between the sexes.  Additional innovative, flexible, and gender-neutral career options (e.g. part-time tenure-track jobs, lab shares, family-induced grant extensions) should be developed to challenge the historically linear career path of successful academics.  Such policies could combat the STEM imbalance and fuel a new wave of successful male and female academics with the perfect work-life balance.

  1., NSF’s 2011 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report
  2.,  The ADVANCE program was developed to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.
  3. Ceci, S.J., and W.M. Williams.  2011.  Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.  PNAS. 108 (8):  3157-62.

Written by danidaee

February 14, 2012 at 9:34 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , , , ,

One Response

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  1. After having delved into the statistical details of Ceci and Williams’s articles, I do not agree that they have made the case that “biased practices in interviewing, hiring, and reviewing are problems of the past and have been largely eliminated by gender equality campaigns.” For example, the studies regarding bias that they examine rely on odds ratios, rather than details of the proposals submitted. This does not rule out the possibility of gender bias.

    Nor do I believe that Ceci and Williams have evidence supporting their statement that “the effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors.”

    For more details, see (Just in case wordpress doesn’t automatically convert URLs, here is an html version of the link.)


    February 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm

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