University, others see lack of female faculty in the sciences

Mike Rose

An absence of female faculty in scientific fields at the University and nationwide is now under the congressional spotlight.

The House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing Wednesday to address the more than two-to-one gap between male and female faculty at research universities in science, technology, engineering and math fields. At the University, roughly 23 percent of STEM faculty is female.

‘The Leaky Pipeline’

A commonly cited concern has been the large gap between the number of female graduate students and female faculty in the STEM fields. Some have dubbed this trend “the leaky pipeline” because female graduate students are not flowing easily into faculty positions.

“It’s a real challenge and puzzle to me,” said Peggy Nelson, chairwoman of the University Women’s Faculty Cabinet.

The percentage of female students in scientific fields nationally has increased across the board over the last 10 years, with 42 percent of science and engineering graduate students in 2004 being female, according to the National Science Foundation.

However, the NSF reported in 2003 only 29 percent of faculty members in the same fields were female.

With only 9 percent of its faculty members being female, the University’s Institute of Technology shows the largest discrepancy among the STEM fields on campus. The School of Mathematics, which is part of the Institute of Technology, has only two female faculty members out of 62.

The Academic Health Center and the College of Biological Sciences both have more than 30 percent female faculty, yet both fall short of the 37 percent within the College of Liberal Arts.

Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, said the primary cause of the leak is when women who hold doctorates choose other fields because they are concerned about the difficulties of raising a family and holding a faculty position.

“Many women choose a position in the industry rather than in academia,” she said.

Carney also identified the composition of scientific departments as a problem.

She said many women might be hesitant to join a department that is overwhelmingly male. Women who do join these departments often struggle to feel accepted, Carney said.

“They may feel the climate is chilly,” she said.

Katie Hines, a second-year pharmacy graduate student, said her classes have a female majority. However, only 22 percent of the school’s faculty is female.

“I wouldn’t say (a lack of female faculty) has hindered my education,” she said, “but you do notice a disparity.”

In computer sciences, 92 percent of faculty members are male. Graduate student Kelly Cannon said young girls need more exposure to the sciences earlier in life if they are to be expected to change this.

“I think the college level is too late,” she said. “It has to start at high school or middle school.”

Cannon agreed with Carney’s assertion that starting a family was a barrier to women entering STEM fields.

“I think it’s a serious concern for female students,” she said.

Solutions?

At Wednesday’s hearing, University of Miami President Donna Shalala called for Congress to be more active in addressing the issue.

“If the United States truly wants to maintain its lead in the global scientific and engineering marketplace,” she said in her testimony, “then policies must be geared to attracting and retaining the best and brightest -regardless of whether they are male or female.”

Shalala also led discussion on the creation of an NCAA-style board to regulate female faculty issues, borrowing from some of the ideas of Title IX legislation. The structure of such an organization was not discussed.

Some female leaders at the University liked Shalala’s determination but were unsure if legal remedies would be sufficient.

“Laws are needed and do create some change,” Peg Lonnquist, interim director in the Office for University Women, said. “But we also need to educate people about the current state of women at the University.”

The Office for University Women consists of various councils, services and commissions working toward improving the working atmosphere for women.

“I think the University has made a lot of effort to work towards equity,” Lonnquist said, “but there’s still a lot to be done.”

The creation of the Women’s Faculty Cabinet has been another effort to proactively address a myriad of issues involving women faculty.

Nelson, a speech and language professor, is the chairwoman of the two-year-old cabinet, which works closely with Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan.

Currently, the WFC has 13 members. One of its key goals has been to secure an ADVANCE Grant through the NSF. This program was created in 2000 to promote an increased female representation in STEM fields.

The University’s first grant proposal was denied but a revision is currently being worked on and should be completed by Dec. 6.

Nelson said getting more female faculty members in the STEM fields would be a challenge.

“It’s going to be a constant struggle,” she said. “The numbers are pretty low.”