HOUSTON CHRONICLE

SUN 06/12/05

 

Academia has difficult time hiring women with Ph.D.s

Female faculty numbers remain low despite the rise in earned doctoral degrees

 

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE

Staff

 

Several months before earning a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Rice University, Powtawche Neengay Williams landed a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.  The NASA lab made the offer in February, about the time those closing in on doctorates were scheduling interviews for faculty and research positions. Her dream, Williams said, is to become an astronaut, so the opportunity seemed too good to ignore. She is among scores of women with research doctorates leaving universities across Texas and the country this month for jobs outside academia.

 

Even as the percentage of women with advanced degrees has grown steadily in the past three decades, there remains a gender gap in the faculty ranks, especially in engineering, mathematics and science.

 

The demographics of the faculty matter, according to Harvard University's Project on Faculty Appointments, because "the most accurate predictor of subsequent success for female undergraduates is the percentage of women among faculty members at their college." The Harvard project found that some women and minorities leave the academic pipeline because too often they experience "an uninviting, unaccommodating and unappealing" environment. Men account for more than 70 percent of professors at the nation's top research institutions.

 

"Every university I know of is looking at this problem," said Theresa Maldonado, associate dean of engineering at Texas A&M University. "But it takes a long time to get the pipeline healthy."

 

A representative faculty

 

Last month, Harvard pledged $50 million over the next decade in an effort to diversify the faculty. The financial commitment came four months after the university's president, Lawrence H. Summers, made the controversial suggestion that "intrinsic aptitude" might be a reason women lag in science and engineering.

 

Rice, meanwhile, formed a group of 17 faculty members to advise university President David W. Leebron on issues facing women. Two years ago, a campus committee's report indicated that although women had a favorable impression of Rice, their level of satisfaction fell short of that of the men surveyed. "At Rice, like most institutions, we're not at the happy state where the profile of the work force reflects society at large," Provost Eugene H. Levy said. A representative faculty "is where we would like to be."

 

Statistics show that women account for 45 percent of all doctorates earned, up from 16 percent 30 years ago. These days women are earning about 45 percent of doctorates in biological sciences, more than 30 percent of those in chemistry and nearly 25 percent in chemical engineering. But women hold only 10 percent of the faculty positions in chemistry and chemical engineering and not quite 20 percent of those in biological sciences.

 

"If the attainment of Ph.D.s goes up, so should the number of faculty appointments, but it hasn't," said Donna J. Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, whose 2004 survey illustrated the shortage of women at the nation's top research institutions.

 

To correct the imbalance, Rice has stopped the tenure clock for new parents, appointed female professors to key administrative positions and asked women to serve on hiring committees. After C. Sidney Burrus announced his retirement as engineering dean, the university formed a 16-member committee that included seven women to find his successor. The search produced Sallie Keller-McNulty, who led the statistical sciences group at Los Alamos National Laboratory and will join the George R. Brown School of Engineering next month. The hiring committee did not set out to hire a woman. Natural sciences Dean Kathleen Matthews, who chaired the committee, encouraged each member to come up with a list of about 10 respected colleagues, thus creating a diverse pool of candidates. "Dean Matthews made it clear to the committee that we need to cast the net far and wide," said Marcia O 'Malley , an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "Maybe it would not have been a priority with a different chair. We definitely got the best candidate."

 

The gender gap at Rice is perhaps most visible in the engineering school, where 36 percent of entering freshmen and 28 percent of entering graduate students last fall were women. But only 10 of the school's 96 tenure-track professors, or roughly 10 percent, were women. Some Rice professors are developing a proposal for a five-year, $3 .75 million grant from the National Science Foundation to increase the participation of women in science and engineering fields. The money might be used to institute gender-bias training, create a new administrative post to oversee efforts to diversify and, perhaps most important, provide on-campus child care.

 

Family issues prevail

 

"What are women concerned about at 25, 30 and 35 years old?" O 'Malley said. "Family issues." Some administrators and professors contend that women are opting out of careers at top research institutions because of doubts about advancement while having children. To gain tenure, a young scholar must show a strong record of teaching and research, establish consistent funding sources for her laboratory as well as network with others in her field and on campus. The median age for women earning doctorates is 34, which places tenure at about 41. A recent University of California report found that 40 percent of female faculty members between the ages of 40 and 60 had fewer children than they wanted. In contrast, 20 percent of their male colleagues expressed a desire for more children. Still, some women are reluctant to take advantage of policies that stop the tenure clock out of concern their colleagues will view them as unproductive, said Martha West, a UC Davis law professor who has worked on the issue for years. "There is still a stigma for those who use it," West said. "We haven't done a good job educating people."

 

Children versus tenure

 

Williams, the recent doctorate recipient, had not seen many women have children and achieve tenure, and the perceived conflict was one reason she did not consider an academic career as her first choice. The 31-year-old Williams, who is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, comes from a large family. Her father is one of eight children, and her mother is one of nine. So there were times at Rice when Williams felt lonely. The mechanical engineering department has two women on its faculty and few female and minority graduate students. "There are things you're looking for, like a girlfriend who is going through the same things," said Williams, who is thought to be the first American Indian woman to earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering in the United States. She has not ruled out a return to academia, but it can wait. When she visited JPL in October, two of the five people who interviewed her, including her future supervisor, were women with families. Williams recalls two successful female professors with children from her years as a graduate student. "It intrigued me," she said, referring to the JPL scientists, "because I could see myself in their shoes."

 

...

 

FEMALES ON FACULTY

 

Number of women among tenured/tenure-track faculty at top 50 departments ranked according to research expenditures:

 

MATHEMATICS (FY 2002)

Johns Hopkins .. 1 of 22

UT Austin .. 5 of 58

George Washington .. 2 of 18

Rutgers .. 4 of 78

Boston College .. 3 of 21

 

(Others)

23. UT MD Anderson .. 1 of 8

29. Texas A&M .. 5 of 71

34. Rice .. 0 of 14

 

CHEMISTRY (FY 2003)

UC Berkeley .. 7 of 58

MIT .. 5 of 29

U of Illinois .. 4 of 35

Harvard .. 3 of 23

Penn State .. 7 of 34

 

(Others)

7. Texas A&M .. 5 of 44

24. UT Austin .. 2 of 47

 

PHYSICS (FY 2002)

Johns Hopkins .. 2 of 32

MIT .. 8 of 76

UC Berkeley .. 3 of 54

Cal Tech .. 2 of 46

UT Austin .. 1 of 49

 

(Others)

35. Texas A&M .. 1 of 40

 

CHEMICAL ENGINEERING (FY 2002)

MIT .. 4 of 32

NC State .. 2 of 21

U of Minnesota .. 2 of 35

Texas A&M .. 2 of 17

UT Austin .. 2 of 21

 

COMPUTER SCIENCE (FY 2002)

Johns Hopkins .. 0 of 17

U of Illinois .. 4 of 40

Carnegie Mellon .. 7 of 43

U of Southern California .. 1 of 23

UC San Diego .. 3 of 39

 

(Others)

9. UT Austin .. 6 of 37

16. Rice .. 2 of 15

49. Texas A&M .. 2 of 28

 

Source: Donna J. Nelson, University of Oklahoma

 

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