IAP for Research
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Women for Science
Authoring Institution
Release Date
June 1, 2006

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  • Women’s career paths

    It used to be tacitly assumed that simply by bringing more girls into science and engineering, the number of women at senior levels would rise. That supposition, unfortunately, does not seem to be true, as women have a higher career dropout rate than do men. This ‘leakage’ of women from the professional pipeline is illustrated in Figure 2.4 for the European Union. Some of the reasons are the result of a poor work environment for minority groups of employees. Others are familial: interruptions resulting from pregnancy and motherhood; care-giving duties traditionally relegated to women; and disruptions caused by the move of a partner, whose career tends to prevail.

     When women scientists and engineers do not drop out—and they are increasingly finding permanent employment at universities, private research institutes, technology companies, and other organizations—they progress less often than do their male counterparts into senior management Figure 2.4(European Commission, 2003; Table 2.1). Figure 2.5 illustrates the percentages of fulltime women researchers for the five grade levels of Argentina’s CONICET. Women are generally at or above parity with men at the lower grade levels, but women’s numbers decrease at the higher levels. In technological sciences, women are absent from the top two levels.

    Thus in addition to familial burdens disproportionately imposed on them, women in science and technology face workplace hurdles: they work as a minority in a male-dominant environment, and they rarely reach decision-making positions. One of the most influential reports in this regard was produced in the United States at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, 1999). Hearing complaints from senior women science professors about their marginalization, the Dean of the School of Science invited them to document their working conditions. The ensuing study provided quantitative evidence of the inequities that existed at this premier university —in particular the deficiencies in the working circumstances of these full professors and their exclusion from networks and leadership positions.

    The MIT administration, widely praised for having the courage to face an embarrassing reality, also reacted quickly to begin changing it for the better. Consequences included additional appointments of women professors, much-improved job satisfaction, and a large influx of women science and engineering students. At this time, the world’s foremost engineering institute has a woman as president, while women undergraduate students have reached parity in science and engineering. The MIT case is an example of a cultural transformation that yielded tangible results within in a matter of a few years once determined administrators took action.

     Responding to MIT’s example, other prestigious universities in the United States have assessed the working conditions of women professors and students, with the result that many of their administrations are now taking their own corrective actions.

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