Beyond Bias and Barriers

Science  10 Nov 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5801, pp. 893
DOI: 10.1126/science.1135744

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Academies published the gathering storm, * a compelling statement describing the dependence of future national prosperity on increasing the numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Now, a new Academies' study, Beyond Bias and Barriers, argues that in spite of that need, our universities are wasting the skills and talents of many individuals by discouraging and inhibiting women from fulfilling their potential in academic science and engineering.

The new report avoids the uncritical hype and extreme positions that have accompanied recent public discussion of these issues. Instead, it is an exhaustive and critical review of relevant published research and analyses, as might be expected given the distinguished authoring panel of scientists and engineers. In spite of this, media response to the report has already included uninformed repetition of stereotypical views about women's talents. These data clearly demonstrate the flaws in several frequently offered explanations for why so few women hold science and engineering professorships. For example, the “pipeline” can no longer be blamed for the dearth of women.

Societal assumptions and their cultural consequences can account for most of the actually minor cognitive differences measured between the sexes. Boys and girls now come to college equally well prepared for coursework in science and mathematics. Even controlling for mathematics test scores among gifted youth, less than half as many women as men pursue scientific careers. Starting at the high school-to-college transition, a greater percent of women than men opt out of science and engineering at almost every step of the academic ladder. The one exception: Women who make it far enough through the minefields to be considered for tenure are as likely as men to succeed.


The report concludes that the current situation stems largely from unintentional bias harbored by both men and women and outmoded institutional structures. In one telling study, the same curricula vitae received lower evaluations when attached to a woman's name than to a man's. Gender stereotypes also produce anxiety that can decrease performance. Even seemingly minor, inadvertent exclusions from the encouragement that is routine for boys and men can eventually add up to serious discouragement from pursuing academic careers.

Most university policies reflect outmoded male expectations for a scientific career and lifestyle, including a wife at home. However, today many married male faculty have working wives. Many young men are unhappy with 80-hour work weeks, but they are a real hardship for women, especially because the early years of their careers coincide with childbearing years. Women should, if they wish, be able to have and raise children without suffering a reevaluation of their commitment and ability to do research. University policies and faculty attitudes must change to recognize these realities if they are to attract the gifted women postdocs who will otherwise opt out of academia. Even the financial sector is considering “reshaping the very architecture of Wall Street work in order to keep women involved” because 80-hour work weeks are a problem and diversity is important to success.

Beyond Bias and Barriers makes specific recommendations for action by universities, professional societies, funding agents, and federal enforcement agents. Recognizing that federal law requires an equal playing field for science as well as sports, it recommends the formation of an interuniversity oversight body analogous to that of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to gather data and monitor progress toward compliance with federal antidiscrimination rules.

National needs, equity, and common sense speak with one voice. Schools and universities must find ways to encourage and ease the path for women who are inspired by the great scientific adventure. As Donna Shalala, chair of the authoring panel, says in her preface, “It is time—our time—for a peaceful, thoughtful revolution.”

  • *Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2006), www.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html.

  • Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2006), www.nap.edu/catalog/11741.html.

  • New York Times, 6 August 2006, Sunday Business section, p. 1.

Navigate This Article