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Origins and Results from the Report on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech

By Anneila I. Sargent

June 2002

Anneila I. Sargent is a Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and
Director of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory and the Caltech/JPL Interferometry
Science Center. Dr. Sargent’s research has concentrated largely on understanding how stars form in
our own and other galaxies and how extra-solar planetary systems are created and evolve. Dr.
Sargent is the current President of the American Astronomical Society.


WHEN A NEW scientific discovery is announced, it is not uncommon to find that several independent groups have been attacking the problem. A flurry of papers supporting and expanding on the original breakthrough often follows. In the spring of 1999, the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) published a report that indicated patterns of
gender bias. Perhaps most dramatic was the fact that the Dean of Science, Robert Birgeneau, and
the President of MIT, Charles Vest, publicly concurred with the committee findings. Vest is
quoted as saying, “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within
universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far
the greater part of the balance.”

It should surprise no one that the MIT study was followed by a spate of similar studies and
reports from other academic institutions. Caltech was no exception. In 1998, Dr. Alice
Huang, Caltech Faculty Associate in Biology and formerly Dean at NYU, had undertaken a broad
analysis of the situation of women at Caltech, including staff and students as well as faculty.
Her report raised several potential concerns for women faculty and, as a result, when the MIT
findings became public in April 1999, the entire female faculty at Caltech submitted a letter to
President Baltimore requesting that a study be undertaken to determine if similar patterns existed
here. The Caltech Faculty Board appointed an ad hoc committee, the Committee on the Status
of Women Faculty at Caltech (CSWFC), to carry out the study. Our charge was to examine issues
of gender inequity and related concerns among female professorial faculty at Caltech and to
report back to the Board with findings and recommendations. But we were also urged to
identify conditions that might be adverse for men as well as women. Perhaps most difficult, we were
asked to make recommendations in the light of our findings that would enable the Institute to
maintain and improve its high standards for teaching and research.

Unlike the original MIT report we came to no firm conclusions about gender bias in the
matter of salaries or of laboratory and office space. Our statistical studies led us to recommend
ongoing monitoring of the situation of women in these areas. The biggest surprise was that men
and women professors often voiced the same complaints, but the women were considerably
more dissatisfied. Our report suggested that this result probably derived from the fact that at the
time of our survey there were no women in Caltech’s upper levels of academic administration,
that the total number of women professors was low (11%), and that there were at least anecdotal
accounts of past gender bias. This led inevitably to our prime recommendation, to increase the
fraction of women faculty at Caltech to 25% in 10 years. However, most of our recommendations
were based on comments from both men and women and were geared toward improving the
working environment for everyone at Caltech.

The report was presented to the Caltech Faculty Board in December 2001. Overall, the
reaction from the Administration has been both positive and supportive. Meeting the hiring goal
will not be easy – a high proportion of all new hires will have to be women – but there seems to
be a will to try, and efforts to implement other recommendations are also underway.

Recommendations from the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech –
Final Report – December 3, 2001

The charge to the CSWFC from the Faculty Board states that an important goal is “to assure
a working environment for all faculty that enables the Institute to maintain and improve its
high standards for teaching and research.” The Committee was requested to “make concrete
recommendations so that there can be no argument later as to whether they have been
implemented or not.” We list below seven broad recommendations in areas where changes to
current Institute practice seem to be called for. Suggestions as to how the recommendations
might be implemented follow. With one exception, the recommendations are based on the
findings of the previous section. The exception arises because the Committee is aware that it
may be difficult for the Institute to respond to all of the recommendations immediately. As a
result, we urge that a means of tracking progress be put in place. We recommend that:

  • the proportion of women on the professorial faculty be increased significantly.
  • the Institute salary structure be monitored regularly to ensure equity between male
    and female professors; present or past inequities in salaries or raises should be
  • every effort be made to follow the standard procedures leading to tenure
    decisions. The procedures should be conveyed to the candidates in writing.
  • each Division establish and implement appropriate mentoring programs for junior faculty.
  • programs that improve the working environment for all faculty and help retain women faculty should be
    aggressively pursued.
  • the Institute initiate a fund-raising campaign focused on women in science and engineering.
  • the progress on implementing these recommendations be monitored regularly,
    perhaps every 3 years. In essence, to achieve its full potential, Caltech needs to
    hire more women faculty, be more proactive in nurturing its junior faculty, and make
    itself friendlier to the working family.

The full report is available online at: www.aas.org/~cswa/caltech_report_2001.pdf

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