Study finds dearth of female science profs

by Kristin Frey

When Kristen Nelson studied for her master’s and doctoral degrees in natural sciences and the environment at the University of Michigan, she saw the burden her women professors bore by being some of the only mentors for women students.

Now, as professor in the University’s department of forest resources, she feels the load of scheduling her time to mentor her own female students.

Nelson’s experiences and her predecessors’ are not unusual, according to a recent University of Oklahoma-Norman study. Women are underrepresented in the faculty science departments of the nation’s top 50 research universities, including the University.

The study, which examined 14 science fields as diverse as sociology and mechanical engineering, found male faculty members outnumber female faculty members by an average ratio of 85 to 15. Similar statistics can be found in the university science departments the study examined.

The study also found that while female undergraduates in scientific fields often outnumber their male counterparts, male faculty members outnumber the female professors in those same fields.

In biological sciences, for example, women receive 58.4 percent of the Bachelor of Science degrees granted in the field, the study found. However, women constituted less than 21 percent of the faculty members teaching in that area.

At the University, 863 female undergraduate students outnumbered the 575 male students at the College of Biological Sciences in fall 2003, said John Kellogg, an analyst in the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Reporting.

Women are 23 of the 51 tenured or tenured-track College of Biological Sciences faculty members.

That discrepancy might be caused by institutional bias and women’s decisions to avoid the strenuous life of a faculty member, said Sally Kohlstedt, a University history of science professor.

Long days and 90-hour work weeks can dissuade women from pursuing jobs in scientific fields, she said.

“For many women, the ways in which science academics are structured make them difficult to have personal lives,” Kohlstedt said.

In the Institute of Technology, where tenured male faculty currently outnumber female faculty 390 to 36, there are no programs to specifically hire women, said Roberta Humphreys, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs.

Instead, she said, the school encourages individual science departments to recruit the best-qualified women.

Nelson said women might also choose not to apply for scientific university positions because they think they will have fewer opportunities.

“The ideal solution would be for each department to pay a lot of attention to females and minorities who express concern to barriers of their environment,” she said.

But the absence of many female faculty members leaves some female science students with fewer mentors in their fields.

“Students may have to go to another university or discipline because they can’t find mentors at universities,” Nelson said.

Diana Gardiner, a computer science senior, said she has only had one female professor in her IT courses.

Gardiner said the the Society of Women Engineers student group helps her connect with other women in engineering.

She added that being the only female in class can have its benefits.

“Sometimes it’s kind of nice,” she said. “The prof really gets to know your name.”