A Changing Landscape For Women In Academia?

22 Feb

On most recent Science podcast, Kerry Klein interviewed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Deborah Kaminskido about the gender breakdown among science and engineering faculty. When Kaminskido and her colleagues used publicly available data, she found gender disparity doesn’t appear to be quite as dramatic as she expected.

Across science and engineering–with the notable exception of mathematics–women seem to be staying at the same rates as male colleagues. Woman are also being promoted at the same approximate times (for women entering the system after 1990).

Kerry Klein: [W]hat do you think are the most important messages to take away from this?

Deborah Kaminski: Well, I think there’s several messages. One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the point-of-view of the academic administration. We have a very high rate of leaving [overall], so our retention in academia is low. We lose half our people in 11 years. Our start-up packages can be as high as one and a half million dollars. You’re investing in someone at the rate of $1.5 million, and in 11 years, half of them are gone. So this is an economic calculation that universities need to make. And I don’t think they’ve had this number before, this “11 year” number, to guide them in their judgment for what they have.

And the other thing we see is that it’s going to take a very long time, at the rate we’re going, to get women into the science and engineering faculties. That’s another major message.

The third message here is in the mathematics discipline, we actually have two problems there that are different from other disciplines. One of the problems is that we’re not retaining them as quickly as men, and, furthermore, in math, faculty leave even quicker than in other disciplines, like in physics or in chemistry or in electrical engineering. They’re leaving quicker in math. The women are leaving quicker than the men. And, in mathematics, what we have is that in the pool, it’s about 25% women in the Ph.D. pool, but only 20% of them are becoming assistant professors. So, when you put that all together, this really points to the need for another study on what’s happening in math.

Some of this is encouraging news. Some is not. From my perspective, academia has to fundamentally change if the goal is to retain more women. But it’s also important to remember that there are many ways to contribute in science beyond the traditional tenure-track trajectory.

In any case, you can listen to the podcast here.

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