Women make important contributions to science but are consistently under-represented at all levels. Indeed, a new study published on 5 September in Cell Press shows a lack of women in senior faculty positions at scientific institutions (1). And while things are improving, most academic institutions have failed to achieve gender parity and many have only a few women in senior-most faculty positions.
The data suggest that efforts to promote and maintain women in more senior scientific roles are still largely insufficient. According to the authors, we are making significant headway, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement. For example, women were in the minority when it came to faculty committees and other activities, including being seminar speakers.
To come up with these important observations, the team of researchers assessed so-called institutional ‘report cards’ for gender equality — part of a programme piloted by the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
The programme requires certain grant applicants to submit reports of gender parity at their institutions and is among a number of strategies aimed at helping to achieve gender parity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Report cards were collected across four years from 541 institutions across 38 countries in North America (72 per cent) and Europe (18 per cent).
The team found that within these institutions, women make up more than half of the undergraduate and graduate student population, but the number of females drops sharply at the senior faculty level. So, as expected, women are better represented at the junior level than in senior ranks.
Even so, women still make up 40 per cent of assistant professors, one-third of associate professors, and one-quarter of the full professors. Nonetheless, these numbers remain low and vary considerably between institutions. In fact, at around one-third of the surveyed institutions surveyed, women made up an abysmal 10 per cent of tenured faculty recruits.
“Institutions in Europe come closer to achieving gender parity”, says Prof Reshma Jagsi, corresponding authors and director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan. And despite these huge regional differences, “the data suggest that we are making headway”, she adds. Moreover, the findings will help the foundation outline best practices for further improving gender parity.
“Funding organizations are in a unique position to require institutional leaders to pay attention to equity, diversity, and inclusion within their organizations,” Jagsi says. “By requiring these report cards, they can promote actions that help all scientists thrive.”
Finally, it seems the problem may not be recruiting women into STEM roles but rather, retaining them and promoting women into more senior influential roles. The next phase of the project may shed some light by focusing on best practices undertaken by institutions and factors that influence the recruitment and retention of women scientists.
More specifically, the researchers are planning to further examine the presence of women in top leadership roles, rates at which tenured women stay in their positions, and equity in salaries across gender, race, and ethnicity. And in particular, Jagsi would like to look at additional challenges women of minority identities may face.
(1) Beeler, W.H. et al. Institutional Report Cards for Gender Equality: Lessons Learned from Benchmarking Efforts for Women in STEM. Cell Stem Cell, 2019; 25 (3): 306 DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2019.08.010