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Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering
Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are virtually absent from the nation’s leading science and engineering departments.
Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of scienceand engineering. Considerable research has shown the barriers limiting the appointment, retention, and advancement of women faculty. Overall, scientists and engineers who are women or members of racial or ethnic minority groups have had to function in environments that favor—sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently—the men who have traditionally dominated science and engineering. Well-qualified and highly productive women scientists have also had to contend with continuing questioning of their own abilities in science and mathematics and their commitment to an academic career. Minority-group women are subject to dual discrimination and face even more barriers to success. As a result, throughout their careers, women have not received the opportunities and encouragement provided to men to develop their interests and abilities to the fullest; this accumulation of disadvantage becomes acute in more senior positions.
These barriers have differential impact by field and by career stage. Some fields, such as physics and engineering, have a low proportion of women bachelor’s and doctorates, but hiring into faculty positions appears to match the available pool. In other fields, including chemistry and biological sciences, the proportion of women remains high through bachelor’s and doctorate degrees, but hiring into faculty positions is well below the available pool.
A substantial body of evidence establishes that most people—menand women—hold implicit biases. Decades of cognitive psychology research reveals that most of us carry prejudices of which we are unaware but that nonetheless play a large role in our evaluations of people and their work. An impressive body of controlled experimental studies and examination of decision-making processes in real life show that, on the average, people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications, are less likely to ascribe credit to a woman than to a man for identical accomplishments, and, when information is scarce, will far more often give the benefit of the doubt to a man than to a woman. Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research shows that they are not exempt from those tendencies.
Evaluation criteria contain arbitrary and subjective components thatdisadvantage women. Women faculty are paid less, are promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions than men. These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other measure of performance. Progress in academic careers depends on evaluation of accomplishments by more senior scientists, a process widely believed to be objective. Yet measures of success underlying the current “meritocratic” system are often arbitrary