An ongoing conversation: women in science

Several nonprofits, blogs and federal agencies recently have released publications about women in science.  These reports and articles use survey data, anecdotes and personal experience to uncover the reasons women remain underrepresented in science.

The Center for American Progress has released a report entitled  “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences.” Using data from a variety of national and local surveys, the report concludes that marriage and childbirth are the largest influences on whether female Ph.D. recipients continue to become tenured faculty members.  Detailing findings corroborated by a 2008 survey of Harvard University students and a Harvard task force, the report notes that researchers, especially those early in their careers, receive few family responsive benefits, such as maternity leave or childcare. The report recommends that universities and federal agencies promote and implement family responsive policies to plug this “leak” in the academic pipeline.

The blog Science Progress has published two recent articles on the underrepresentation of women in science.  In “Get a Life,” Rebecca W. Bushnell, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, calls for more than just additional family-friendly policies.  In order to prevent the loss of a generation of the nation’s scientists, Bushnell says “there will have to be a change in culture in the assessment of academic productivity, which now privileges an unrelenting rate of massive amounts of work over time.”

ASBMB also has published a series of articles about this issue in ASBMB Today.  Most recently, fellow science policy fellow, Allen Dodson, and I commented upon the “two-body problem.”  We found that getting a fulfilling academic job in the same location as your spouse is likely to affect women more than men.

The American Enterprise Institute is attempting to battle what AEI resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers referred to as the “radical feminist agenda” by publishing “The Science on Women and Science.” In her essay for the book, Sommers concludes that the underrepresentation of women is no longer due to external societal factors but reflects only innate differences in the preferences between men and women.  Sommers’ view is shared by few others engaged in this conversation.

The NIH is also working to highlight the achievements of female scientists.  In Women in Science at the National Institutes of Health 2007-2008,” the NIH celebrates the work of 289 female scientists who are associated with the agency.

The flurry of recent publications and studies on this issue can be traced to then-Harvard President Larry Summer’s 2005 comments relating to the dearth of women in science.  Since then, there have been controversial articles about female career choice and an influential National Academies of Sciences report entitled “Beyond Bias and Barriers.”

I will continue to cover new developments in this discussion.  Look for commentaries and news related to the representation of women in science on the Blotter in the future.

0 thoughts on “An ongoing conversation: women in science

  1. This is a great summary of the current discussions. Particularly relevant to ASBMB members is Rebecca Bushnell’s comment that “there will have to be a change in culture in the assessment of academic productivity, which now privileges an unrelenting rate of massive amounts of work over time.” And this comes from an English professor!
    Those of us who have long worked in the basic sciences know that the emphasis on productivity is relatively new. Years ago we could rely on doing a more limited amount of really good science (the more typical pattern for a female lab scientist), but now all that matters is quantity.

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