CSWA Logo AAS Logo

Attracting and Retaining Women in Science and Engineering

By Sue V. Rosser

Sue Rosser is dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. Part of the research reported in this article was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

January 2004

This article first appeared in the July-August 2003 issue of Academe, the bulletin of the American
Association of University Professors. It has been reprinted here with permission from the publisher of
Academe, and the author, Sue V. Rosser.

Fiscal year 2001 marked an important milestone in policies to attract and retain women in science and
engineering. That year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated an awards program called ADVANCE at a funding level of $19 million. The program supports efforts by institutions and individuals to empower women to participate fully in science and technology. The NSF explained in announcing the program that a category for institutional awards was needed because of an "increasing recognition that the lack of women's full participation at the senior level of academe is often a systemic consequence of academic culture."

At the end of a special meeting held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January
2001, a statement was released on behalf of nine U.S. research universities (the California Institute of
Technology; MIT; Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale Universities; and the Universities of Michigan,
Pennsylvania, and California, Berkeley) suggesting that institutional barriers have prevented women
scientists and engineers from having a level playing field in their professions. "Institutions of higher
education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available," the statement declared, explaining that the signatories "recognize that barriers still exist" for women faculty, and that"this challenge will require significant review of, and potentially significant change in, the procedures within each university, and within the scientific and engineering establishments as a whole." For the first time in public and in print, the leaders of the nation's most prestigious research universities acknowledged the existence of institutional barriers for women scientists and engineers, suggesting that science and engineering might need to change to accommodate women.

The NSF publication Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering:
2002 reports that the percentage of women majoring in scientific and technological fields has increased
since the 1960s. By 1998, 49 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in these fields were women.
Yet the percentage of women in computing, the physical sciences, and engineering remains lower
than in other science-related disciplines. In 1998, women received 74.4 percent of the bachelor's
degrees in psychology, 52.7 percent in the biological and agricultural sciences, 52.5 percent in the social
sciences, 39 percent in the physical sciences, and 37 percent in the geosciences, but they received only
18.6 percent in engineering. A July 2, 2000, article in the New York Times, "Computer Science Not Drawing Women," reported that the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women had dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to 20 percent in 1999.

The percentage of graduate degrees earned by women in these fields is even lower. Women,
Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000, published by the NSF, found that although women earned 55.5 percent of the master's degrees in all fields in 1996, they earned only 39.3 percent of the degrees in science and engineering. By specific field, the percentages were as
follows: psychology, 71.9 percent; social sciences, 50.2 percent; biological and agricultural sciences, 49.0
percent; mathematics, 40.2 percent; physical sciences, 33.2 percent; geosciences, 29.3 percent; computer
sciences, 26.9 percent; and engineering, 17.1 percent.

The same publication reported that women earned 40.6 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in all fields
in 1997 but only 32.8 percent of the Ph.D.'s in science and engineering. The percentages for specific
fields were 66.6 percent in psychology, 58.7 percent in the social sciences, 40.7 percent in biological and
agricultural sciences, 23.7 percent in geosciences, 23.4 percent in mathematics, 22.4 percent in physical
sciences, 16.2 percent in computer sciences, and 12.3 percent in engineering.

The small number of women receiving degrees in the sciences and engineering translates to an even
smaller percentage of women faculty in these fields. The NSF reported in Women, Minorities, and Persons
with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000 that only 19.5 percent of science and engineering
faculty at four-year colleges and universities in 1997 were women. Women accounted for just 10.4
percent of full professors, 21.9 percent of associate professors, and 32.9 percent of assistant professors in
science and engineering at these institutions. Although the bulk of science and technology
research occurs at research universities, barriers for women such as insufficient lab space, salaries that lag
behind those of men, and fewer prestigious opportunities for women than men are endemic to
these institutions. The statement released after the January 2001 MIT meeting showed a dawning
awareness that the best way to address these barriers is through institutional rather than individual change.

Roadblocks to Success

The ADVANCE awards program replaced another NSF program titled Professional
Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE). Women scientists and engineers
who were U.S. citizens in tenured, tenure-track, or non-tenure-track positions at any rank at any
four-year college or master's or research university were eligible to apply to POWRE. Although a few
tenured full professors, faculty from four-year institutions, and non-tenure-track faculty members
received awards, most POWRE awardees were untenured assistant professors in tenure-track
positions at research universities.

I disseminated an e-mail survey among award recipients for 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 asking
them to identify the "most significant issues/ challenges/opportunities facing women scientists
today as they plan their careers." The quantitative and qualitative data collected from the nearly four
hundred respondents illuminate the changes that institutions need to make to empower women
scientists and engineers.

As Table 1 reveals, overwhelming numbers of survey respondents found "balancing work with
family" to be the most significant challenge facing women scientists and engineers. Interestingly, the
responses remained remarkably similar across disciplines: balancing work with family responsibilities
was the major issue for women from all the fields of study covered by the survey.

Table 2 groups the sixteen issues or challenges listed in Table 1 into four categories. When restrictions
stemming from spousal situations (issues 5 and 7 of Table 1) are combined with "balancing work with family responsibilities" (issue 1), it seems that Category A— pressures women face in balancing career and family—poses the most significant barrier to the careers of women scientists and engineers. (Issue
7—job restrictions—relates to spousal situations in that many women do not want to pursue positions in locations in which their spouse will not have employment opportunities.)

Category B covers a second group of issues (3, 4, 8, 10, and 12) related to the low number of women scientists and engineers and the stereotypes that surround expectations about their performance. Although issue 10— active recruitment of women—would seem to benefit women faculty, it sometimes leads to a backlash, including difficulty in gaining credibility from peers and administrators who assume a woman obtained her position because of affirmative action. Such difficulties, as well as women's isolation and lack of mentoring, typify Category B.

Category C includes issues (2, 6, 16) that both men and women scientists and engineers face in the
current environment of tight resources, but which may pose particular difficulties for women. For
example, time-management challenges, such as balancing committee responsibilities with research
and teaching (issue 2), can be a problem for male as well as female professors. However, as the NSF
reported in 1997 in Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education, women
scientists and engineers, because of their scarcity, are often asked to serve on more committees than their
male colleagues in order to meet gender diversity requirements, even while they are still junior faculty,
and to advise more students, either formally or informally.

Cutthroat competition makes it hard for men and women to obtain funding. But women's
socialization to be less overtly competitive than men may make it more difficult for a woman scientist or
engineer to succeed in such an environment. Category D (issues 9, 11, 13, 14) identifies barriers
caused by overt harassment or discrimination that women scientists and engineers face. Issues 11 and
13 are included in this category because some male scientists and administrators hold stereotypical views
of women and expectations about their roles in the family and the workplace. Such male colleagues may
discriminate against women by assuming that women will have difficulty establishing an independent
research agenda, traveling, or working in the evenings and on weekends.

The following quotations from the respondents to the POWRE survey provide a qualitative context
for the issues raised. In these quotations, women describe specific barriers to their careers.

Career and Family

Referring to the struggles of women scientists and engineers to balance their work and family
responsibilities, one 2000 POWRE awardee wrote:"At the risk of stereotyping, I think that women
generally struggle more with the daily pull of raising a family or caring for elderly parents, and this
obviously puts additional demands on their time. This is true for younger women, who may struggle over the timing of having and raising children, particularly in light of a ticking tenure clock, but also
for more senior women, who may be called upon to help aging parents (their own or in-laws). Invariably
they manage, but not without guilt."

Another 2000 award recipient saw as a major challenge "managing dual-career families (particularly
dual academic careers). Often women take the lesser position in such a situation. Ph.D. women are often
married to Ph.D. men. Most Ph.D. men are not married to Ph.D. women."

Low Numbers and Stereotypes

Referring to gender stereotypes against which women scientists and engineers struggle, a 2000
awardee noted that "the biggest challenge that women face in planning a career in science is not
being taken seriously. Often, women have to go farther, work harder, and accomplish more in order
to be recognized."

Another 2000 award recipient commented on the effect of there being so few women scientists and
engineers on university faculties: "In my field (concrete technology), women are so poorly
represented that being female certainly creates more notice for you and your work, particularly when
presenting at conferences. This can be beneficial, as recognition of your research by your peers is important
for gaining tenure; it can also add to the already large amount of pressure on new faculty."

Resource Differentials

Commenting on issues faced by men and women scientists and engineers in the current
environment of tight resources that may pose particular difficulties for women, a 1997 respondent
wrote, "I have noticed some problems in particular institutions I have visited (or worked at) where
women were scarce. As a single woman, I have sometimes been viewed as 'available,' rather than as
a professional co-worker. That can be really, really irritating. I assume that single men working in a
location where male workers are scarce can face similar problems. In physics and astronomy, usually
the women are more scarce."

A 2000 awardee commented, "I still find the strong perception that women should be doing more
teaching and service because of the expectation that women are more nurturing. Although research as a
priority for women is given a lot of lip service, I've not seen a lot of support for it."


A 1998 awardee commented that "there are almost no women in my field, no senior women, and
open harassment and discrimination are very well accepted and have never been discouraged in any
instance I am aware of."

A 1999 award recipient wrote: "I have often buffered the bad behavior of my colleagues—and
over the years I have handled a number of sexual harassment or 'hostile supervision' cases where a
more senior person (all of them male) was behaving inappropriately toward a lower-social-status woman
(or, in rarer cases, a gay man)."

Policy Considerations

The data from the POWRE awardees indicate that the most pressing, immediate concern that
institutions must address to attract and retain more women science faculty is the difficulty women face
in balancing work and family. At first blush, problems with balancing a career and a family, or
balancing two faculty careers, may appear to result from the choices made by women individually or in
conjunction with a spouse or partner. But the high percentage of POWRE awardees who identified
problems in this area suggests that addressing the issue at the level of the individual will be inadequate.
Institutional responses are needed to resolve these family-centered challenges cited by overwhelming
numbers of POWRE awardees from each year covered by the survey.

As the responses from the survey show, the scarcity of women in science and engineering can
lead to isolation, lack of mentoring, stereotypes about women's performance, and difficulty gaining
credibility among male peers and administrators. Considerable variation among fields makes it hard to
address such problems at the institutional level. The numbers of women have increased markedly in
some disciplines (psychology, sociology) and begun to approach parity in others (life sciences). But in
other disciplines (engineering and computer science), the numbers have remained relatively low.

Small numbers make women visible; visibility draws attention to successful performance, but it also
spotlights errors. The variance from field to field in the number of women suggests that institutions may
need to establish different priorities and policies for women in different disciplines in science and
engineering. For example, a one-size-fits-all policy may not work equally well for women in engineering
and their counterparts in biology.

Active recruitment of women into areas that have few female faculty members can have positive
and negative consequences. Overt and subtle harassment must be dealt with at the institutional
level. Institutions and professional societies need to establish policies against sexual harassment and
gender discrimination, including—as S. T. Elliott points out in a 2001 article published in Women in
Higher Education, "Does Your School Discriminate Against Pregnant Faculty?"—policies prohibiting
discrimination against pregnant faculty in hiring, promotion, and tenure.

Flexibility and acceptance of differences between men and women are crucial to advancing the
numbers and careers of women in science and engineering; such tolerance can also serve as the key
to new approaches to collaboration and creativity. Institutional policies against sexual harassment and
gender discrimination must be implemented and enforced. Senior administrators play critical roles in
terms of allocating human, financial, physical, and time rewards for those who enforce such policies.

Recognition of such policy issues is only a first step toward overcoming the institutional barriers
that keep women from participating fully in science and technology. These issues should inform the
conferral of ADVANCE awards to institutions. In October 2001 the NSF announced the first eight
university recipients: Georgia Institute ofTechnology, New Mexico State University, and the Universities of California, Irvine; Colorado, Boulder; Michigan; Puerto Rico; Washington; and Wisconsin, Madison.

The respondents to the POWRE survey revealed tremendous love for science and technology and
dedication to their research and profession. Most seek to have the barriers to women's advancement
removed so that they can be productive researchers who take creative approaches to the physical, natural
world. The shift from solutions focusing on individuals to those that concentrate on institutional change
should make a difference for women in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

Back to January 2004 Contents

Back to STATUS Table of Contents