Report: Gender Bias Prevalent in Academia One of the authors of a new report on women in science and technology that calls for immediate, dramatic reforms to counter gender biases in academic positions.
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Report: Gender Bias Prevalent in Academia

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Report: Gender Bias Prevalent in Academia

Report: Gender Bias Prevalent in Academia

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A new report released this week by the National Academies finds that women face barriers to hiring and promotion at research universities in many fields of science and engineering. The report calls for universities to undertake immediate, far-reaching reforms now to try to stamp out the bias.

Joining me talk about it is Maria Zuber. You've heard her here before talking about Mars and planetary missions. She's a member of the National Academies' Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, in addition to being professor of geophysics and the head of the department of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at MIT. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Zuber.

Dr. MARIA ZUBER (Member, National Academies' Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering): It's great to be back.

FLATOW: Was this report - did it confirm what we already know or did it say we're making progress in this area?

Dr. ZUBER: Well, depending on what aspect of it you look at. In terms of the findings I would say there was one general finding that confirmed what most of us thought we knew and one that was quite a surprise. The confirmation was don't blame biology. We went through, we looked at all of the literature on biological differences: brain structure, hormones, cognitive development, even evolution. And for sure, there are differences between women and men. However, these differences absolutely cannot account for the lower representation of women on academic faculty and in leadership positions.

FLATOW: The Larry Summers factor here.

Dr. ZUBER: The Larry Summers factor. Well, Larry challenged this question to be looked at, and it has now been looked at and the answer is resoundingly clear. And we have a full chapter in the report that details all the literature, and the data is there and people can now go look for themselves. And so we can now put this question to bed.

FLATOW: And the other part of the report, talking about the work that still has yet to be done.

Dr. ZUBER: Well, let's see. I should finish up with the finding that was a surprise, okay?

FLATOW: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Dr. ZUBER: The surprise to many of us was don't blame the pipeline, okay? I think many of us expected the answer to be that there just isn't a large enough pool of available, trained women who were ready and willing and able to go into these faculty positions.

But in fact that wasn't the case. We all wish that there were more women in the pool, but given the amount of women who are getting PhDs and who've indicated an intention that they were interested in academia, the number that we're seeing who actually get appointments in academic science and engineering is inconsistent with what the available pool is in most fields. So the talent is there and the interest is there, okay? So then the question becomes, which was your next question, what do we do about it?

Well, if we all agree that there's a disparity, then there are two issues that we have to concern ourselves with. And first of all, is making appointments of women into these positions, and then the next one is keeping them there.

Now in terms of making appointments, we looked at this matter; and the representation of the committee, you know, ranged from people who were college presidents all the way down to people who were department heads like myself, where the actual hiring occurs. And we talked to an awful lot of people about this, and the tendency in academia is we all think we're being fair and we all want to be excellent. But when we're judging excellence we tend to stay close to shore, and it's easier for us to recognize excellence if it looks like ourselves, okay?

So there's a tendency when you interview candidates - where's the fit? You try to envision what is good research and what is the best research and how would this person fit in our department. It's very easy to see former post-docs and graduate students, and it's very easy to see people who look like you and who act like you fitting into these positions easier. And so the challenge is to sort of put aside these biases. And the biases exist in women as well as men, okay?

And to just do as much as we can to broaden the pool so that we're judging not on how a person looks like they're going to fit but in terms of where the real talent is, okay?

FLATOW: There's also mention made of what concrete things universities can do. For example, journals should be thinking about submitting articles to reviewers without the names or the identities attached.

Dr. ZUBER: Well, that was one of the things that we had thought of. You know, when you send out a paper for review, and I'm as guilty about this as the next person. When I get papers to review from certain people in the community I say okay, well, I have a bias before I even read it that this is a good paper if I know that it's a well-respected researcher.

But then, you know, then perhaps that makes somebody who's an unknown that we're not giving them the benefit of the doubt that we would give a more senior person. And granted, people have worked hard to get these reputations, but when you're dealing with journals where, you know, in Science and Nature where they only send maybe one out of 20 submitted papers out for review, you know, it's possible that we could be giving a fairer shake to everybody, to junior women and to junior men, if we did not only the reviewing blindly but if we actually masked the names of the people who wrote the papers. Then we'd have to read the full paper before we developed an opinion of what the quality of the work was.

FLATOW: Talking with Maria Zuber on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Dr. Zuber, what about - you mentioned that somewhere in the pipeline we're losing women. Is there any intervention at any place that you found might work?

Dr. ZUBER: Well, we're losing women at all stages of the pipeline, okay? And I guess the good news is that things are starting to get better on the high school end, okay? Women are now doing as well as men are in math in high school, so there's, you know, a population of people there who are doing well and who are competitive. And so when you go into the undergraduate part of the curriculum - now at MIT, half of the undergraduate science majors are women and 35 percent of the undergraduate engineering majors are women.

So then you go into graduate school, and the numbers get a little bit less. And then women tend to get - you lose women at different parts of the system, and we really need to take efforts to try to understand why we're losing them. Now in terms of, you know, if you find a women, you appoint a woman, how do you not lose a woman in the tenure-track process? Well, it turns out that the system that we have in academia now is set up so that in the time when you're fighting to try to get tenure at a university, these are also the prime childbearing years for women, okay?

And so there's a problem there. You know, we all realize that if we're going to have a position in academia, that we have to work very hard. But the time that you have to work the hardest are your prime childbearing years.

So we looked into this, and it turns out that doing things like, you know, providing, you know - suppose we allowed research grants to allow small allowance for child care while a person attends a scientific meeting or that allowed, say, child care or technician support while a person - while a woman went on maternity leave. These are little things. They certainly would have some cost associated with them, but they would be things where it would say, well, you're not working any less hard, but you're helping with the support structure.

It turns out that one of the real impediments in terms of succeeding in academic is what I will call the lack of a traditional stay-at-home wife. And now 90 percent of the junior academic women have spouses. Half of the men who are in academic positions have working wives. So we're in a situation that, you know, anything that we could do to help with either elder care or child care support, it would not only help the women but it would help junior faculty men too.

So it turns out that if you really look at the situation, challenges that affect women also tend to affect men to a somewhat lesser extent. So, you know, a number of the things that we're talking about undertaking in terms of steps to make things better are going to make it easier for everybody to succeed.

FLATOW: Do you think these will be written down somewhere so that people actually take up this advice? I mean will the changes happen?

Dr. ZUBER: Well, the changes have to occur at various levels. They have to occur within universities. We're calling on professional societies also to pitch in and do their part. You know, when a junior person is trying to establish themselves in their careers, the ability to get an invitation to give an invited talk at a conference is an important thing. So we're calling on societies to, you know, look at the - to really examine the pool so that they make their best effort to have gender balance to the extent there can be in terms of invited talks.

We think that, you know, perhaps the best way to make progress on this is for academia to police itself. So we've actually on the committee come up with a draft of a scorecard for how we're doing in terms of engaging women in the academic process.

FLATOW: Dr. Zuber, we've run out of time.

Dr. ZUBER: Okay.

FLATOW: I want to thank you, though. We'll pick this up in the longer format that it deserves. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. ZUBER: Well that would be great. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Maria Zuber, member of the National Academies' Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.

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