February 6, 2004

U.S. Study Probes Diversity

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Females and minorities represent more than half of the students in higher education across the United States, yet they continue to be a minority among the faculty members educating such students. A press conference and Congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. recently addressed a new study, which revealed that women and minority faculty members are significantly under-represented at the nation’s top fifty research universities.

The study, called “A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities,” was conducted by Dr. Donna J. Nelson and Diana C. Rogers at the University of Oklahoma. In it, the two women found that despite an increasing number of women earning Ph.Ds, the number of new women faculty members is not proportional.

According to the study, while in the biological sciences almost half of the Ph.Ds between 1993 and 2002 were women, only 30.2 percent of the assistant professors in 2002 were women. Additionally, female students make up about 58 percent of all biology students, while female faculty members represent approximately 20 percent of their departments.

The percentage of women on the faculty of math, science, and engineering departments at these universities range from 3 to 15 percent, and most of these women are white. No Black, Hispanic, or Native American women are tenured faculty members in computer science departments at any of the universities included in the study. One Black professor in astronomy is the only female Black or Native American full professor in any of the physical science or engineering departments studied, although there are 10 Hispanic full professors. Even in a social science typically more popular for females, such as psychology, women make up 76.5 percent of the students but only a third of the faculty.

These low numbers suggest it is possible for women in some majors to earn a bachelor’s degree without being taught by a female professor in their departments. Cornell professors Marjolein van der Meulen, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Lois Pollack, assistant professor of applied and engineering physics, acknowledged this possibility. Both of them earned degrees without having female professors in their fields and acknowledged that it could happen at Cornell under certain circumstances.

In the study, Nelson and Rogers report that a cycle exists, making it more difficult for women to progress from an undergraduate education in the sciences to a professorship. They suggest that the discrepancy between the number of women Ph.Ds and the number of women professors is connected with the lack of sufficient role models and mentors currently on the faculty. “I think it’s a very individual relationship,” van der Meulen said. “I think good mentoring is important, period.”

Students of all genders and backgrounds could benefit from a more diverse faculty, according to the study. Engineering student Gretchen Piwinski ’04 believes that diverse mentorship is important. Her father suggested that she go into engineering, and when she mentioned it to her high school teachers, they were supportive. However, none of her teachers thought to suggest it to her first. “We definitely don’t have the role models that men do,” she said. “I think we still have to wait another generation.”

Piwinksi also acknowledged that in the school of engineering, women are a significant minority. Yet, she was not as concerned with percentages as Nelson and Rogers for current female students to find mentors or role models. “It feels like it’s an issue of whether there’s a presence or not as opposed to whether it’s equal or not,” she said.

Chemistry and chemical biology professor Dotsevi Sogah believes that having a faculty that is more representative of the students “will have a positive impact on the whole educational system.” He has had minority students who took an introductory course from him express their enthusiasm for having a fellow minority as a professor. However, Sogah does not

believe that students without mentors of their gender or race will be discouraged from earning Ph.Ds or becoming professors, if it is a strong enough personal interest. “If they don’t see a large minority [at a university], it might discourage them from going to that school,” he said.

Sogah added, “It is necessary to have more under-represented minorities in the departments who can serve as role models and advise the students on the point of view of career, including academic positions.”

While the study presents many numbers, it does not account for the many reasons why women and minorities do not represent more of the faculty in the sciences. It also does not address an issue that many women face as they consider time-consuming professional careers.

“Faculty positions are usually pretty time consuming between teaching, research, advising and many other responsibilities—definitely not a 9-5 kind of job! It’s a huge challenge to think about balancing career with family,” Pollack said, on possible reasons why fewer women with Ph.Ds go on to teach. “If you want to have both, it’s critical to have a spouse who’s willing to be an equal partner.”

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz