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'Past Progress, Persistent Challenges'
U.S. Women Scientists Gain Ground, Still Trail Male Colleagues

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Dr. Kimberlee Shauman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, said one of her first tasks was to dispel a persistent myth: Contrary to popular belief, girls choose and excel in math and science courses at every level of their education at rates comparable to boys. She knows that from sociological research she conducted for Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes, a recently published book on gender differences that she coauthored with Dr. Yu Xie of the University of Michigan. In "Women in Science: Past Progress and Persistent Challenges," a Mar. 23 lecture in honor of Women's History Month, Shauman also shared intriguing "life course" data on what happens after the science classes end. Specifically, she explored why fewer U.S. women than men develop lasting, successful careers in science and engineering (s/e), and why the playing field may never grow level.


"I'm going to discuss the progress of women in science and engineering by taking you on a tour of the educational process of becoming a scientist," she said, explaining that the life course perspective examines the effect significant personal transitions — marriage and parenthood, for example — have on science careers. "Along the way we'll stop to take a look at how women have been doing in the past and how we are doing currently."

There is good and bad news about the efforts of women in science to draw even with their male colleagues in the 30-year period from 1960 to 1990, she said. First, the not-so-great news: Women still earn an average of $13,000 less annually than men in comparable s/e posts, are promoted at a significantly lower rate and publish 20 percent fewer articles and books. However, these gaps show signs of narrowing, beginning as early as adolescence: Girls get better grades than boys in high school science courses, the number of women earning baccalaureate degrees has increased in almost all s/e fields except mathematics and computer science, and the overall representation of women in the s/e labor force has increased in all fields.

Dr. Kimberlee Shauman
"There are policy motivations for our interest in women in science," Shauman said. "As our economy has become more technologically based and our understanding of health, biology, nature and space has advanced, concern about the supply of scientifically advanced personnel has also grown. Recruiting more women and underrepresented minorities to science is often proposed as an effective way to expand the talent pool and increase the supply of scientists."

The continued gender disparities are difficult to explain, Shauman pointed out, but research data offer a few suggestions. For example, there is segregation of men and women into different s/e fields. She noted that women are concentrated heavily in biology, men in engineering. In general, the engineering field offers far higher earning potential, whereas biology is at the relatively low end of the science-discipline earning scale.

In addition, according to evidence she cited, women in s/e are employed in greater proportions at teaching colleges, but men in s/e tend to work for research universities, where grant funding is more abundant, lab space more plentiful, earnings higher and research assistants more readily available for career advancement.

Another substantial barrier to leveling the s/e career playing field among the sexes is parenthood, Shauman continued. While marriage has no apparent effect on the s/e career of either partner, adding children to the family appears to be a liability for women and an asset for men, she said.

Her research found that the time off for childbirth/child-rearing poses a significant — and often irreversible — impediment to s/e career advancement for the large majority of women scientists who become mothers, and that mothers are 75 percent less likely than fathers — or childless scientists — to be promoted to management positions. Parenthood was also found to inhibit the geographic mobility of women, but has no apparent affect on men.

Indeed, the birth of children seems to enhance the careers of men in science by presenting an economic rationale for the male partner to invest more in his career. The phenomenon holds true even for couples with dual science careers, Shauman pointed out.

But is science different from other careers? Aren't women in other professions similarly penalized for breaks in service due to childbirth and child-rearing?

"It's important to note having preschool- or school-age children coincides with the formative career years for a scientist," Shauman said. "These are the years when mobility might be most influential for later career progress. This is exactly the time when women are less mobile, and so this might have a negative effect on their longterm career outcomes."

In conclusion, Shauman said women have made great strides in closing the science career gaps, and that institutional recruitment and retention programs for women at the post-secondary science education level have been a success. Still, inequities remain.

"Greater programmatic focus should be directed at the recruitment of girls and young women and at removing barriers to the successful transition from non-science to science majors in our colleges and universities," she recommended, noting that a large percentage of young women who ultimately earn a bachelor's degree in s/e start college not intending to pursue science careers. Later they may switch from a non-science path to science, where the hurdles for switching may be unnecessarily onerous.

In addition, the data suggest that the structure of scientific careers conflicts with common patterns of family-related life course events for women. Shauman said further research and policymaking should examine which structural characteristics present the greatest barriers and which of those can be changed.

"On an interpersonal level," she concluded, "there are two sides to the conflict between career and societal roles, and change may need to occur on both sides. As long as women are expected by society at large and by their partners in parenthood to assume the role of primary caregiving of children and as long as women accept primary responsibility for childrearing rather than demanding equal sharing of responsibilities, then parenthood will always have a more detrimental effect on women's career paths. Women need to demand more equitable arrangements from their partners and they need to demand work arrangements that allow them to realize the long-term value of their scientific career capital, despite the short-term slowdowns that are associated with childbearing and child-rearing."

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