Women in science: Finding consensus

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Gender shapes US university officials' take on ways to recruit and retain women in STEM.

US female deans, provosts and other academic administrators gave higher ratings than did their male counterparts to policies and strategies aimed at improving the professional lives of women in science, a study finds (W. Williams et al. Front. Pyschol. http://doi.org/b8m7; 2017). And they disagreed with male administrators about the value of some strategies for retaining female faculty members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

US universities have considered dozens of ways to bolster the number of women in senior academic posts, yet women hold less than 20% of combined tenured and tenure-track posts in such fields as physics, chemistry and computer science, notes the study, published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Researchers analysed responses from 344 provosts, deans, associate deans and department chairs in STEM fields at 96 public and private US research universities. They asked about the quality and feasibility of 44 strategies for recruiting, retaining and promoting women in STEM.

Women and men strongly endorsed two ways to increase the number of female administrators in academia — providing on-campus day care and offering equal opportunities for women to lead committees and research groups. “There is common ground here,” says study co-author Wendy Williams, director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Women and men also both rejected gender quotas for promotion.

But more men than women eschewed expanding the role of service and teaching — obligations historically shouldered more by female than by male academics — in tenure decisions. “Women see it as more important to broaden criteria for tenure, so that tasks traditionally excelled at by women receive more weight,” says Williams.

Men were also less keen on policies that would enable mothers to use grant funds to take children and carers with them to conferences, or that would provide grant funding so that women could hire postdocs for cover during leaves of absence for family reasons.

“Women endorse policies that reflect the world of being a woman in STEM. It's different from the world men inhabit,” says Williams. “When men and women department chairs, deans and provosts disagree, we should carefully consider women administrators' wisdom about policies for retaining women in STEM.”

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