Faculty Science Positions Continue to Elude Women of Color
Oklahoma professor’s study finds hiring, tenure remain stumbling blocks
Women and underrepresented minorities are receiving the doctorate in record numbers these days. For example, women got 45 percent and minorities 19 percent of the 39,955 doctoral degrees awarded in 2000, and both figures were all-time highs.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that senior academic women in science and engineering are almost uniformly gloomy about what’s happening in their fields.
Asked what’s changed the most and what’s changed the least in the 54 years that have passed since she first earned her degree, Dr. Jewell Plummer Cobb, the renowned cancer researcher and former president of University of California-Fullerton, takes a long pause.
“Honestly,” the emerita professor says from her home in New Jersey, “I think things are about the same. I haven’t done a study, of course, but as I’ve moved around over the years, as I’ve traveled to conferences and talked to people and worked in this field, I’ve seen exceptional women who have moved to high levels, like Shirley Jackson at Rensselaer (where she’s president) and a few other people. But I haven’t seen what I would call a big change in the number of minority faculty women.”
Halfway across the country, though, Dr. Donna Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma, has done a study. It’s an exhaustive look at the status of women and minorities in 14 science and engineering disciplines at the nation’s top 50 departments. Her findings put flesh on the bones of Cobb’s intuitive sense of the landscape in her field.
Nelson says she was aghast to see that her data indicated that “when it comes to hiring, the numbers of underrepresented minority males and females of all races actually appear to be decreasing in spite of the fact that their percentage of Ph.D. attainment is increasing.”
Nelson’s findings also included the following:
Women have few opportunities to be taught or mentored by women. While the number of undergraduate women receiving science and engineering degrees continues to grow — women are now 48 percent of the nation’s math majors, for example — the composition of the faculty is stagnant. The faculty ranks in math, chemistry and chemical engineering are 91.7, 87.9 and 89.5 male. Meanwhile, women comprise 48.2, 47.3 and 35.7 of the students in those fields.
When it comes to hiring, the pool of qualified women is not, in fact, limited. Indeed, the number of Ph.D. recipients has grown dramatically from 1983-2002, even in the hard sciences. Women, for example, were nearly a third of Ph.D. recipients in chemistry from 1993-2002. The numbers are smaller in computer sciences, astronomy, physics and the engineering disciplines — yet still substantially above those in the decade 1983-1992.
But hiring remains the stumbling block. The gender disparities in the hiring of recent Ph.D. recipients are startling in certain fields. In biological sciences, for example, women were 44.7 percent of the doctoral recipients between 1993 and 2002, but only 30.2 percent of the assistant professor hires. White males, meanwhile, got 43.2 percent of the doctorates and 55.4 percent of the jobs.
The picture looks no better when it comes to tenure. Female full professors comprise only 1.8 percent of the faculty in electrical engineering, 2.7 percent of the faculty in chemical engineering, and 3.1 percent of the faculty in math. Psychology, sociology and astronomy were the fields with the best female representation; women were 15.4, 12.1 and 6.5 percent of the full professors in those fields.
Women tend to be clustered at the lowest academic rank, that of assistant professor. They’re 21.5 percent of those who hold the rank of assistant professor in chemistry, even though they’re only 12.1 percent of the chemistry faculty. Even in the field in which women faculty are best represented — sociology, where they’re 35.8 percent of all faculty — they’re 52.3 percent of the assistant professors.
Underrepresented minority females suffer the worst disparities of all. With the exception of one Black full professor in astronomy, there were no Black or American Indian full professors in the sciences and engineering disciplines surveyed. Indeed, the faculty surveys turned up a grand total of 19 African American women, 33 Hispanic women and one American Indian woman.
what should be expected
The findings don’t come as a surprise to Dr. Jong-on Hahm, director of the Committee on Women in Science and Engineering at the National Academies of Science.
Hahm, a neuroscientist, notes that “especially in the ’90s with the worker shortage, a lot of things happened to make workplaces more attractive to women scientists. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies knew that they had to work hard to keep good people — they became very good about making their workplaces more attractive.
“But academia doesn’t have those incentives,” she adds. “Overall, full-time, permanent slots are dwindling due to budget constraints. There are fewer jobs and a huge boom of foreign applicants for jobs, so the competition is much more acute. Also in academia, it’s very hard to get anything to change very quickly. People keep on doing things because they’ve always been done a certain way.”
It’s true that universities are inherently conservative, notes Dr. Beverly Anderson, a math professor and former provost of the University of the District of Columbia who, in the 1990s, led the National Research Council initiative, Making Mathematics Work for Minorities.
But she adds universities are also a microcosm of what’s going on in society. And “what I’m seeing now in society is that there is not the environment of nurturing minority students we once had, and there is not the national commitment of funding and resources that there was” a decade ago.
Pointing to the high number of foreign nationals earning doctorates in the sciences and engineering — indeed, U.S. citizens were only 39 percent of engineering and 55 percent of physical science doctorates in 2002 — Anderson says, “You’ve got to look at the comfort level we have in hiring folk from outside the country (for positions in the academy) when we could be preparing our own minority students instead.
“People have bought into the idea that minorities can’t contribute in this area. That’s a problem I see that, at some point, we’ve got to deal with head on,” she adds.
Nelson has been inundated with calls since her study was released in January. She has testified on Capitol Hill, given a National Press Club briefing, been asked for data by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and National Academies of Science. But in some ways, she confesses, she’s “disgusted” by the hoopla.
“My sense is that they could have been collecting this data all along,” she says, adding that she finds it particularly appalling that her study may be the first to make a serious attempt to disaggregate data on women and women of color.
“A study of this importance should not fall to a lone chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma,” adds Nelson, whose ancestry is one-quarter American Indian.
Dr. Evelynn Hammonds, who is only the fourth African American woman to achieve the rank of full professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is one of those who has been pushing for years for more information on women of color in the sciences.
“We have nothing comparable to the kind of historical analysis that’s been done of the history of women in science — and by that, what’s meant is the history of White women, not the history of African American women and women of color,” explains Hammonds, who teaches both the history of science and African American Studies at Harvard.
“That produces a significant gap in our knowledge — there’s just too much we don’t know about how gender and race work together to produce marginalization,” Hammonds adds.
A variety of qualitative studies — Hammonds mentions Dr. Abby Stewart’s work at the University of Michigan — give eloquent testimony to the “hostile climate” endured by women and women of color in the sciences and engineering.
But, she adds, “In terms of the quantitative work that needs to be done to build better tracking systems, in terms of the qualitative and historical analyses that will allow us to say we know something about why this is happening, we’re just at the beginning.”
Nelson, meanwhile, hopes that her study can spark a conversation about what women can start doing to help each other.
“We know that OCR and OFCCP” — the federal offices of Civil Rights and Federal Contract Compliance Programs — “are not doing what they ought to be doing,” she says
“So how do we educate young women and women of color and minorities about what they’re going to face? I’m starting to think it’s not enough to tell them, ‘You need to network, go to meetings, find mentors.’ What we should be saying is: ‘You may experience isolation, snide comments, social games, office politics. This is how you recognize the pattern; this is how you analyze what’s going on; and this is how you sidestep and surmount it.’
“That’s the conversation that I want to start having,” Nelson says.
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