NAS Reports No Gender Bias In Faculty Hiring

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 26, 2009 9:13 am

The U.S. National Academies published a new report which finds no gender bias in the faculty hiring process. According to the data, women are being hired and promoted with equal access to resources once we make it that far.

Still, there’s no doubt it’s the journey that’s most arduous.

Here are some interesting figures from the latest issues of Science:


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education
MORE ABOUT: academia, faculty, women

Comments (7)

  1. MartyM

    That’s great! But where’s the study showing the number of girls studying math, science, and engineering in grade school and college? I think those numbers need to increase in order to improve upon faculty hiring of women as well as in all areas of industry. When I was getting my B.S. in mathematics there were a number of females in my classes, but when I was getting my B.S.s in electrical and computer engineering, there were very few. In my work environment the number is small. There has to be a correlation to the number of girls/women interested in these areas.

  2. MartyM,
    The numbers are actually quite good for women through the undergraduate years. The drop off occurs later. I’ve described what’s going on in the past:

    [It’s] necessary to acknowledge that many ladies simply fall out of the pipeline as priorities understandably change between ages 21 and 36. While anecdotes are not evidence, I’ve spent the past several years observing the drop off firsthand as friends and colleagues transition into other professions as they attempt to balance, well, life. Hence, if we are to encourage women to stay in the system, then the system will need to undergo fundamental changes to accommodate more of us. Is that a fair expectation? For that matter, should it be? I’m not sure.

  3. If young women are leaking out of the pipeline because of work-family conflicts, I think it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that it’s their individual choice, and especially to frame it as a “Darwinian” conflict, and leave it at that. That way of framing the problem makes it sound like it’s inevitable and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    On an individual level, we often attribute these decisions exclusively to the women who make them, and we fail to ask what factors are channeling women into their decisions: leave policies, availability of quality child care, an inflexible tenure and career clock, etc. Would those be “fundamental changes”? Or just reasonable ones?

    And from a policy/system level, if you assume that women and men are equally capable, then these numbers suggest that the system is are filtering out a significant percentage of the potential top scientists for non-merit-based reasons. Set aside the politics of gender for a moment and just view it through the cold hard lens of efficiency and productivity: if I told you that your system is losing 10-20% of the people who otherwise would have been the world’s leading scientists, don’t you think “fundamental changes” in the system would be called for?

  4. JEM

    From what I can tell, Sheril is correct about this. The jobs in question in general are not that desirable (at least in my opinion) given the current pressures, competition, lack of funding opportunities/budgets, etc. However, they are even less so for women who must balance additional expectations (personal and societal), and also face additional persistent (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle) slights and biases, often without a workable support system. It wasn’t all that long ago when I sat in classrooms where it was perfectly acceptable for the professor to be openly hostile to the few women in the room. Who in their right mind would want to take that on as a work environment. Women are making a rationale choice when they fall out of the pipeline, and the only way to correct this is to fix the system so the choice to stay is not so personally costly.

  5. MartyM

    I remember graduating (more than a few years ago now) and seeing statistics that said women and minorities in engineering had more opportunity and a higher starting salary. I even know some who got higher salaries than SWMs on average.

    I know of no one who says life is easy or fair, but I do know several women in engineering and other professions who balance family and career and seem to be doing well at it. No one circumstance applies to all, so while it’s not easy (and in some cases not possible), if the work environment is hostile or non-conducive to promotion, then search for a change.

    Maybe I’m getting conflicting views. While I don’t deny some biases women face in the work place and may be penalized unjustly, I do see women excelling in the work place, which is great and leads me to think that it is getting better for women in general. Isn’t that what this report is saying?

  6. JEM

    I do think that over the long term things have been getting better, and this report shows that efforts to make improvements are in place and in general have made and are making a difference. Certainly there are examples of women who are doing well; I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. However, my own experience is in the chemical sciences area which, as the top chart shows, is not doing all that well in recruiting women into applicant pool, and is generally doing poorly in promoting/hiring women to tenured positions (red figures, bottom table). In other words, although a relatively large fraction of chemistry graduate students (>30%) are women, a smaller fraction of the best women chemists consider academic positions than do the best male chemists, and those who do go that route are lost along the tenure track. I realize the limited value of anecdote, but my own observation is that after years of progress, the environment is becoming less friendly to women. Certainly, I personally hear, and hear of, many more comments these days that just a few years ago would have been considered inappropriate and would not have been tolerated. Also, I have some personal knowledge of discrimination in promotion practices that was not present years ago. And although I know I shouldn’t, in a nod to the discussion going on in Chris’ posts re. science and religion, I will point out that a lot of the bad behavior I have personally witnessed comes from a conservative religious segment of the workplace who fervently believe that there is no place for women apart from the home, and who took advantage of the lack of enforcement by the previous administration to act out and undo some of the progress that was being made.

    MartyM you are right, searching for a change is in order. Moving however, changes only ones personal circumstances. A greater change that benefits all is also in order.

  7. One thing that was striking to me about the graphic was that regardless of percentage of doctorates going to women in the areas, there being a range from (eyeballing) 12-45% of PhDs being to women, the percentage of offers going to women was essentially the same for all fields — about 33% — aside from physics (about 20%, vs. a 15ish% of all PhDs being to women).

    It’s also striking that the fields where the percent of applicants who are women closely match (again eyeball level) the percentage of degrees (Civil and Electrical Engineering, Physics) have few women, vs. fields (Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics) where fewer to markedly fewer (Biology) women apply for academic positions. I’ll conjecture that it isn’t a coincidence. The women who slog through the process of getting the degree in spite of the crap they encounter on the way, I’ll conjecture, are more like the men they graduate with than is the case in fields like Biology.

    I recently had a reminder of something apropos the observations of MartyM’s about women being in his workplace and doing well. This is also the case in mine. There’s a clear generational bias, but also a clear steady progress in fraction of people who are women in my work place as you look at younger ages. The reminder, though, was that my workplace is not necessarily typical. To judge by some other things, it’s wildly atypical. Anyhow, I was recently at three different meetings, regarding three different kinds of things that I work on. (Sufficiently disjoint interests that I was the only person at more than one of the three.) And, at every one of these relatively independent meetings, the fraction of people who were women was between very low and appallingly low. a) although some workplaces have respectable representation from women, many others still, apparently, do not. b) even in workplaces that have respectable numbers of women, the women apparently are not in the end of things that means going to meetings.

    Things are definitely better. They still have a long way to go.

    One thing, however, which I think is a mistake is to make the family-hostile practices of some workplaces a ‘women’s’ issue. If you have to spend 80 hours a week at work, there’s something wrong with that workplace. That’s true regardless of your gender. At least some of us men, myself for example, enjoy their parenting and want to be (and have been) involved parents.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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