September 26, 2002


Study finds negative climate for women faculty engineers and scientists

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan released a study today (Sept. 26) showing that women scientists and engineers on the faculty experience a more negative working environment than either men in their own fields or women in the social sciences. The findings define a baseline against which to measure progress in improving working conditions and career opportunities for female science and engineering faculty at the U-M. Funding for this program comes from multiple university resources and from a five-year, $3.7 million institutional transformation award from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Program to enhance gender equity in science and engineering.

The U-M climate survey study, based on responses from tenured and tenure track female scientists and engineers, male faculty in the same fields, and female social scientists, is unique in its inclusion of a comparison group of women in the social sciences. This design enabled the researchers to distinguish between problems confronted by women in academe more generally and those that are specific to women in science and engineering fields. The report resulting from the study recommended that the University increase the "critical mass" of women faculty in science and engineering and renew its commitment to policies that address gender-related climate issues.

"The nation must be concerned about diversifying its pool of trained scientists," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the university and a member of its faculty in biological chemistry and chemistry. "In this age of technology and global competition, the United States struggles to produce an adequate number of professionals in science and engineering. It is imperative that we tap the full potential of our human talent."

"When women reach a critical mass in senior level academic and administrative positions, particularly in the sciences, and when we have more role models and mentors, then I firmly believe that barriers will begin to disappear. I am very encouraged by the willingness of Provost Paul Courant and our deans to talk openly about these issues. As leaders, we need to ask departments to reflect not on whether they can diversify their faculty, but how they are going to do so. It is our collective responsibility to speak frequently about the need to diversify the faculty and follow through with solid steps to enhance our recruiting and retention of women faculty."

The U-M study covered a broad array of workplace factors and experiences. It found that women and men shared most of the same professional experiences and job satisfactions in terms of teaching, scholarly productivity, laboratory resources, recognition accorded their work, and their initial contract negotiations.

There were also some very important differences.
Female scientists and social scientists were both more likely than male scientists to have life partners who work full time or not to have partners at all. These household differences obviously mean that women scientists, like other women academics, are likely to be carrying more household responsibilities than their male colleagues.

On issues of workplace climate and gender discrimination, moreover, women and men faculty in science and engineering reported notably different experiences. For example, about 41 percent of the women scientists and engineers reported gender-related discrimination in a least one of the following areas: hiring, promotion, salary, space, equipment or other resources, access to administrative staff, and graduate student or resident/fellow assignments, compared to 4 percent of their male counterparts. In addition, about 20 percent of the women scientist respondents reported being the object of unwanted and uninvited sexual attention at U-M during the last five years, compared to just over 5 percent of the men surveyed.

Women in science and engineering also rated their departments more negatively than either men in their departments or women in social science departments on several climate indicators including: a positive, tolerant, egalitarian climate; perceptions of being under surveillance; race/gender tokenism; the department chair’s fairness and ability to create a positive environment; and the chair’s commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. "Faculty meetings were typical of the treatment of women from all walks of life," one respondent reported. "I would say something and no one would listen. Another (man) would speak up with exactly the same thing I had said and everyone would say, ‘What a great idea.’"

In general, junior women faculty scientists and engineers reported that they received substantially less mentoring than their male colleagues—nearly five mentors for men, but just over two for women. "I feel pretty strongly that there are certain men who are mentored, and the women are not," one respondent said. "...they do all sorts of things I was never asked to do. I’m not asked to participate on proposals. I’m not mentored in the same way."

Women served on more committees than men but did not chair committees at a higher rate; women scientists and engineers also tended to carry significantly higher service and advising burdens. "The fact is that since we have very few women, they tend to be called to do more than their share," one respondent noted.

"Major research universities, including the U-M, CalTech and MIT, have realized that we have to improve the campus environment for women faculty in these fields if we’re going to attract and retain the brightest and best for our respective institutions," said Abigail Stewart, professor of psychology and women’s studies and associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) who directs the project. "The proportion of women in the highest faculty rank, full professor, is disappointingly low."

The U-M is one of only a handful of research universities to publicly announce the results of such a study. A report by MIT in 1999, which took an unflinching look at how marginalization had frustrated the careers of many women faculty, resonated with many women scientists and attracted national attention to the problem.

To speed the progress of science and engineering fields toward gender equity, the National Science Foundation created the ADVANCE program, which awarded nine institutional transformation grants to ensure fuller participation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering. The U-M received a $3.7 million ADVANCE grant in the fall of 2001. Among these, the U-M is distinctive for its rigor in gathering quantitative and qualitative data at the outset to provide solid baseline information to measure progress.

Both at the U-M and nationally, the number of women on the tenure track in science and engineering has lagged far behind gains made by women in non-science fields. According to the NSF, women earned 36% of all science and engineering doctorates in the United States in the year 2000, but they make up only 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce in general and less than 20 percent of the science and engineering faculty in four-year colleges and universities.

The next step in the ADVANCE program, according to project director Stewart, is to develop and test methods to improve the opportunities for tenure-track women in science and engineering. "We will support a series of campus-wide climate initiatives such as data-based workshops for specific disciplines, targeted consultations with department chairs on retention of female faculty, and focus groups for faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows," Stewart said.

In addition, the project has established a research fund to support women’s scholarly research activities, and created a network for women scientists and engineers. Finally, individual departments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the College of Engineering and the Medical School (the three academic units at U-M with the greatest number of scientist and engineering faculty) will be able to develop proposals and compete for supplemental funds to support a significant transformation in their environment for women faculty. The final step, planned for the fifth year of the program, will be to repeat the campus climate survey and measure the changes that have occurred. "This is where the baseline data that we’ve just collected will prove its worth," Stewart said. "We’re the first NSF ADVANCE project to begin with baseline research before the program even began. With this information we’ll be able to quantitatively evaluate how much we’ve really been able to improve things."

Related links:

NSF Advance >>

URecord story (Feb. 2001): University joins 8 other schools to address gender inequity >>

Contact: Judy Steeh
Phone: (734) 647-3099