Montana State University
Archived Spotlight story

By Robin Wilson

(From Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23, 2004)

Women account for only a very small proportion of the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers working at the nation's top research universities, according to a study released on Thursday. Male faculty members outnumber female professors even in the few scientific disciplines where women earn more Ph.D.'s than men, it found.

The shortage of women at the nation's top institutions is "a grave national problem," says a report describing the study. In fact, it is an issue that has troubled many academics for years.

"People have known that women are underrepresented," said Donna J. Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma at Norman and the study's chief investigator. "The extent to which they are underrepresented is news."

The study, which was financed by the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations, was endorsed by representatives of three national women's organizations. "This study illustrates that there is a lot of work to do to meet the goals we all thought we had adopted by enactment of antidiscrimination laws three and four decades ago," said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center.

Ms. Nelson and one of her undergraduates, Diana C. Rogers, wanted to study the number of women at the nation's 50 most-elite research universities. They determined which institutions were at the top by looking at those that spent the most money on research in each of 14 disciplines: astronomy, biological sciences, chemical engineering, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, economics, electrical engineering, mathematics, mechanical engineering, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

They found that, in most fields, the proportion of bachelor's and doctoral degrees earned by women was much higher than the proportion of beginning faculty members teaching in the discipline.

In the biological sciences, for example, 44.7 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded nationwide from 1993 to 2002 went to women. But only 30.2 percent of assistant professors of biology at the top 50 universities in 2002 were women.

In computer science, women earned 20.5 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded from 1993 to 2002, and yet only 10.8 percent of the assistant professors of computer science at the top universities in 2002 were women.

Even in psychology, where women earned 66.1 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded from 1993 to 2002, only 45.5 percent of the assistant professors at the top research universities in 2002 were female.

"In most science disciplines, qualified female candidates exist, but they are not being hired," says the report, "A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities." The report does not identify the cause of the imbalance but says that university administrators must ask themselves whether they are setting up "barriers" to hiring women or whether women who earn Ph.D.'s are turned off by the academic experience and seek jobs elsewhere.

The study found that the proportion of female full professors in science, math, and engineering at the top universities was even tinier than the proportion of assistant professors. Over all, only 3 percent to 15 percent of full professors in the 14 disciplines at the top departments were women.

The same goes for women who are members of minority groups. The top 50 research institutions had only 19 black women teaching in the science, math, and engineering disciplines included in the study.

At all of those institutions, there were only two black female professors of mathematics and only one of chemistry; there were none in computer science or physics.

The report says female students need role models to be successful. "When female professors are not hired, treated fairly, and retained, female students perceive that they will be treated similarly," says the report. "This dissuades them from persisting in that discipline."