Panel: Women lag in science

The nationwide gender gap in science and engineering faculties persists at Yale, despite ongoing efforts by the University to recruit more women in those departments, according to professors speaking at a panel discussion Monday evening.

The panel discussed the findings of a recent National Academy of Sciences study about the gender gap and reiterated Yale’s commitment to hiring and retaining women. The report found that bias and “outmoded institutional structures” have kept the number of female faculty in these fields from increasing.

Professor Meg Urry discusses women in science and engineering at a panel held on Monday. The University is working to hire 30 females and 30 minorities in the next seven years and is making resources available to hire members of these groups.
Christopher Ripley
Professor Meg Urry discusses women in science and engineering at a panel held on Monday. The University is working to hire 30 females and 30 minorities in the next seven years and is making resources available to hire members of these groups.

The study’s observation that women interested in science and engineering drop out of the fields at every point of educational transition holds true at Yale, said panelist Kim Bottomly, the deputy provost for science, technology and faculty development. But she said the University recognizes the need for change and is developing new mentoring programs and promoting hiring incentives in order to increase the number of women on the faculty within the next few years.

“We could weigh in judiciously and say we can’t do anything until we understand what the causes are. … But if we don’t move ahead, we will lose too much,” Bottomly said. “There isn’t enough time.”

Yale is currently working toward a goal set in 2005 to add 30 women and 30 minority faculty over a seven-year period, Bottomly said. The University is making resources available for departments to hire women and minority faculty members when they find excellent candidates, even if they do not have an opening, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.

Bottomly said that in addition to promoting the hiring of women and minority faculty, Yale needs to put in place effective forms of institutional support to prevent women from leaving. Yale will continue to track the progress of individual women on the faculty in order to better understand what causes women sometimes to give up careers in academia, she said.

In its report, the NAS committee refuted the commonly held beliefs that women are not as competitive as men, do not want jobs in academia and are more interested in family than careers.

Panelist Joan Steitz, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor and member of the NAS committee, said unintentional biases hinder the achievement of women in science and engineering. Numerous studies have shown that on average, employers are less likely to hire a woman than a man even if the two have identical qualifications, she said.

“Scientists are people,” Steitz said. “We have the same hidden biases as everybody else, and as a result, judgments do not get made purely on what people have accomplished.”

Steitz said the committee looked at three possible explanations for the gap: biological differences, variations in work ethic between men and women, and social or cultural influences.

“We found that the third one was the really big one,” Steitz said. “The first two were balderdash.”

In order to address social and cultural influences, the committee outlined steps that both education institutions and the government can take to lessen the gap, including policy changes, workshops and additional funding for child care.

Panelist Meg Urry, a physics professor who reviewed the committee’s report, said the suggestions should be implemented speedily because preventing the attrition of women as they advance through the ranks of academia is vital for the health of the economy.

“If we omit half the brain pool, we have dumbed down our fields,” she said. “Engaging the best brains in the economy is essential.”

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