Saturday, September 29, 2012

How to level the playing field for women in science?

I decided to take a class this semester on women in science. We've been reading and discussing articles about different challenges that women face. Next week I'm supposed to present on possible solutions, and I'd love to hear ideas and suggestions from my readers. I'm particularly concerned with what happens to women in science during and after graduate school.

I'll briefly summarize some of the issues we've discussed and the research behind them.

All qualifications being equal on paper, female college graduates (intending to go on to grad school in science) are perceived to be less competent than identical male college grads (Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students). Many excellent bloggers have written extensively about this new research (here, here, and here for starters). It is important to note that both men and women who were evaluating qualifications rated men more competent than identical women.

A similar gender bias exists in single-blind peer review (Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors). This suggests that double-blind peer review reduces unintentional gender bias that subtly discriminates against work by female authors.

In psychology, identical cv's with male or female names found lower rates of hire (at the assistant professor level) and starting salaries for the female name (The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study)

The emerging story from experimentation is that based solely on their perceived gender, women are perceived to be less competent in science, less likely to get papers published, less likely to be hired, and offered lower starting salaries (pre- and post-PhD). These are issues that affect women regardless of their partnership or parenthood status.

Additionally, many researchers have gathered information from scientists at various career stages about other factors that influence metrics of success (salary, grants, publications, etc.) such as work-life balance and parenthood.

A survey of academics from various fields at different types of institutions from across the U.S. found that among partnered academics, women tend to have partners who work more hours than men (Balancing Parenthood and Academia: Work/Family Stress as Influenced by Gender and Tenure Status). Women are much more likely to have spouse who is employed more than 40 hours per week. They also found that women tend to do a larger share of childcare/housework, even when their spouse is also employed full-time. Very similar results were found in a survey of tropical ecologists by the Organization for Tropical Studies (Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists). A good overview on this topic is The family life of academics: gendered priorities and institutional constraints.

Considering the present challenges, what ideas do you have for leveling the playing field for women, particularly in science and academia? What can be done to better accommodate caregiving responsibilities? Do you know of any institutions (e.g. universities/granting agencies) with exemplary policies?

I've heard suggestions (some of which are already enacted to various degrees) such as wider adoption of double-blind peer review (as mentioned above), allowing child care expenses in grant budgets, improving parental leave options (maternal AND paternal), and adjusting the tenure clock. I have to admit that I know little about  tenure clock policies, so I'd love to hear suggestions for readings on that topic.

I worry sometimes that discussion of women's issues focus heavily on parenthood, which can be narrow, presumptive, and alienating for women who cannot or choose not to have children. I'd also love to hear comments from readers outside the U.S. on the pros and cons of their policies affecting women in science in their countries, since my perspective is very U.S.-centric.

I'm purposely not being too specific in terms of solutions other people have suggested, but a 2009 report, Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences, offers many suggestions (especially regarding issues related to parenthood).

Note: I believe that all of the articles to which I linked can be found for free online, but not necessarily via the links I provided. If you can't find any of these, feel free to email me.


EarlyToBed said...

Complicated multivariate problems require a variety of approaches. I can think of at least four classes of solutions.

!. from within/self-improvement: e.g. "how can I as a women influence how others perceive me and my competence".

2. from within/consciousness-raising: "how can I be more fair in my evaluations of others, and aware of my biases so that I can push them aside"

3. From above/informal e.g. the chair of a search committee goes out of their way to encourage females (minorities too) to apply, and ensures that a diverse group is brought out for interviews.

4, From above/formalized process: A formalized, in writing, description of best standards for recruitment and hiring and a documented checks-and-balances system designed to help ensure fair recruitiment and hiring.

Please let's go beyond solution 1. Solution 2 works, but doesn't make lasting change. I think 3 and 4 are the most effective. Real change often comes from the top. But this must be pushed for.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the link to Uncommon Ground. I've just finished a new post there that will appear at 6:00am Monday morning with a few thoughts more focused on what we can do as individuals.

Karina said...

Thanks EarlyToBed for such a great comment that addressed the different levels! I am personally most interested in the formalized policy process and what I can do to advocate for proven best practices.

Kent, I look forward to reading your post tomorrow!

African Fieldworker said...

I shudder to imagine the response of at least some members of the review committee if a proposer included child care in a grant. I think this should not be in the main grant, rather an additional thing you could apply for. Otherwise it is too easy to remove (or deny) as unnecessary when you need to cut costs.

My university has a "life changes" internal grant which supports both men and women who have a baby, get divorced or any number of life altering events

African Fieldworker said...

I'm sorry EarlyToBed, but #3 can be twisted (and often is) into "well, we invited the token woman/minority to interview, so we've done our part even though we never actually hire a woman/minority"

the whole hiring process is about "fit" with the department, it is so easy to discriminate as a result

Karina said...

African Fieldwork, I've been thinking about your comment about reviewer's reactions to child care in a grant proposal. Perhaps the best option is to encourage grants at the university level like your institution offers. That seems like a good solution.

Although it specifically excludes research, the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) offers educational and professional development awards that can be used to cover childcare expenses while attending a conference or workshop (among other things).
This seems like a great program, since many university or conference presenters' awards do not cover childcare.

Karina said...

Sorry, I meant African FieldworkER! My typing has been so bad recently! And it's annoying that I can't edit my comment.