To achieve broad participation of women from all backgrounds in STEM fields, institutions must transform, according to a new article.

Coauthor Beth Mitchneck, professor in the University of Arizona department of geography and development, says challenges for female academics exist in all disciplines but are particularly pronounced in STEM fields, which are dogged by “scientists are men” stereotypes and often hold a more traditional disciplinary culture, including expectations on which journals to publish in and how much time to spend in the lab.

The work aims to encourage structural changes to university work environments to improve the representation of female professors in STEM fields, to advance science, and to create a more inclusive workplace within and outside academia where everyone can be successful.

The Policy Perspectives article in Science presents a six-part plan organized under the headings of: learn the social science research; leaders must understand the context and be accountable for diversity and inclusion; seek external catalyzing resources; focus at the department level; collect and publicly share data; and policy change is critical.


In many STEM fields, the low number of female professors cannot be attributed to a shortage of female graduate students. Mitchneck cites the field of biology, where more women than men are earning doctorates—yet women comprised 36 percent of assistant professors and only 27 percent of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the US National Research Council.

The NSF reports that women comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent of full professors in engineering despite earning about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the nation.

Mitchneck says the problem does not stem from these graduates not being hired as assistant professors, but is related to the need for changes in the academic workplace.

“There are a lot of different incentives for universities to hire women or minorities, but then they haven’t changed the conditions under which they work,” Mitchneck says. “And that becomes the fundamental problem.”


Subtle biases, some more hidden than others, permeate the system. This is why the authors recommend that the campus community read the relevant social science research for an “understanding of the myriad ways in which bias contributes to stereotype threat, belonging uncertainty, work-life imbalance, and a host of other negative outcomes.”

Mitchneck recalls a male professor from a STEM field complaining that a female colleague was not committed to her science because she often left the office at 3 p.m.

Mitchneck, who had her own history of leaving the office early to pick up her children from school and then working at home until 11 p.m., questioned the man’s underlying assumption that this woman was not being productive because she was not physically in the office or lab. This assumption of being less committed once you have children does not fall equally on male professors, Mitchneck asserts.

Also, in departments and committees, female professors often are allocated the “housekeeping” work, time-intensive tasks that do little in the way of advancing the professors’ careers, Mitchneck says.

Subtle bias also comes from students, who are more likely to call female professors by their first name and question their expertise, Mitchneck says. This bias from students might seem like pernicious, but it also can have negative consequences.

“There is a lot of evidence that shows that women and minority faculty get lower teaching evaluations than white men,” Mitchneck says. “And many universities use teaching evaluations when deciding salary raises and promotions.”


The authors recommend a re-evaluation of the fairness of the promotion and tenure process, or P&T.

“P&T policies as they currently stand are inflexible and are often reduced to a mathematical formula of publications, external funding, and impact factors. This reductionist evaluation can hurt women faculty, who, for example, are often drawn to collaborative teams and interdisciplinary research,” Mitchneck says.

Mitchneck notes that although team-based science is important for innovation, it takes longer to complete and may result in fewer publications and solo-author papers.

The importance of gender equity in higher education does not end at the institution’s walls, Mitchneck emphasizes. Science suffers because of the underrepresentation and slow advancement of women scientists and engineers. Research shows that introducing various perspectives bolsters creativity and innovation in teams and that women and minorities investigate topics that otherwise would not have been studied.

“If we’re excluding half the population from being full partners in the scientific enterprise, then we as a society lose out,” Mitchneck says.

In the article, Mitchneck and her coauthors focus on women professors in STEM fields but say their plan has implications for other groups: “Changes that bring about inclusion for one group, we argue, can have far-reaching benefits for everyone.”

Nor is their advice meant only for universities.

“As a society, we are dealing with these types of issues not only in higher education, but also in the corporate world and in scientific industries,” Mitchneck says. “This a phenomenal opportunity for us to work together to solve these problems that are really important for society at large and for the coming generation.

“I know I want my daughters to come into a workforce that is more equitable for them than it is now.”

Mitchneck’s coauthors are Jessi Smith, professor of psychology at Montana State University, and Melissa Latimer, professor of sociology at West Virginia University.

This article originally appeared at Futurity.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

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