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National Academy of Sciences (US), National Academy of Engineering (US), and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Biological, Social, and Organizational Components of Success for Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006.

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Biological, Social, and Organizational Components of Success for Women in Academic Science and Engineering.

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Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunity Act, which declares it “the policy of the United States that men and women have equal opportunity in education, training, and employment in scientific and technical fields.” Major advances have occurred since then in the numbers of women enrolling in science and engineering classes in high school and college, but academic institutions are not fully using the growing pool of women scientists and engineering graduates that these classes have produced.

The nation’s ability to use all its scientific talent is vital to its ability to retain technological and economic leadership in an increasingly competitive world. A diverse workforce brings new perspectives and priorities to science and engineering education and research. Removing artificial barriers that prevent scientists from making their optimal contributions therefore has high priority.

Over the last 40 years, the number of women studying science and engineering has increased dramatically. Women now earn 51% of the bachelor’s degrees and 37% of PhDs, including 45% those in biomedical fields. Within the population of women science and engineering students, there are divergent experiences. For example, white women earn 50% of the bachelor’s degrees and 41% of the PhDs awarded to whites. Hispanic women earn 55% of the bachelor’s degrees and 50% of the PhDs awarded to Hispanics. African American women earn 64% of the bachelor’s degrees and 54% of the PhDs awarded to African Americans.

Nevertheless, women do not hold academic faculty positions in numbers commensurate with their increasing share of the science and engineering talent pool. This is particularly true for African American women. The discrepancy exists at both the junior and senior faculty levels but is especially great at the top research-intensive universities. Furthermore, women who find academic employment are less likely than men to have tenure-track jobs in science or engineering departments or to advance to tenure. Even when they land tenure-track jobs and earn tenure, women lag behind men in salary, professional honors, and positions of authority.

The causes of the discrepancies are controversial. Observers have attributed differences in career progression and success to sex differences in cognitive abilities, to differences in career interests and preferences, to bias and discrimination, to gendered institutional policies and practices, to broader societal gender roles and assumptions, or to a combination of these factors.

To explore the question, the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy assembled the ad hoc Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering and charged it to

  • Review and assess the research on sex and gender issues in science and engineering, including innate differences in cognition, implicit bias, and faculty diversity.
  • Examine the institutional culture and practices of academic institutions that discourage and prevent talented individuals from realizing their full potential as scientists and engineers.
  • Determine effective practices to ensure that women doctorates have access to a wide range of career opportunities in academe and in other research settings.
  • Determine effective practices for recruiting and retention of women scientists and engineers in faculty positions.
  • Provide recommendations to guide faculty, deans, department chairs, other university leaders, funding organizations, and government agencies in the best ways to maximize the potential of women science and engineering researchers.

As a vital part of its effort, the committee held a public convocation, Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering: Biological, Social and Organizational Components of Success, on December 9, 2005, in Washington, DC.1 The convocation consisted of three elements: a series of panel discussions, poster sessions where attendees shared their data and experiences, and a public comment session. We brought together national experts in a number of disciplines to discuss crucial and controversial questions. Speakers were asked to address what sex differences research tells us about capability, behavior, career decisions, and achievement; the role of organizational structures and institutional policy; cross-cutting issues of race and ethnicity; key research needs and experimental paradigms and tools; and the ramifications of their research for policy, particularly for evaluating current and potential academic faculty.

Speakers presented the most up-to-date research exploring the effects of sex and gender2 on cognition and on recruiting, hiring, promoting, and retaining women scientists and engineers, and they described the best methods for improving women’s opportunities to advance and succeed in academic science.

Although the discussions during those activities helped the committee to respond to its charge, this report presents the views and opinions of the convocation participants and may not reflect the views of the committee or of the National Academies. The committee released a final consensus report with findings and recommendations in September 2006.

Donna E. Shalala, Chair

Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering



The meeting agenda and speaker presentations are available online at http://www7​.nationalacademies​.org/womeninacademe/.


Sex is defined as “the biological state of being male or female” and gender as “the culturally prescribed characteristics and roles of a male or female in society and associated with masculinity and femininity.”

Copyright © 2006, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK23760


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