Mixed News for Female Sci-Tech Faculty

For female faculty in scientific or technical fields, a new study has good news, with some caveats.

Overall, women in these fields, collectively known as STEM, for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are staying in these positions at the same rate as men, according to work done by Deborah Kaminski of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Cheryl Geisler of Simon Fraser University.

"This is really good news, it means if we hire them we are going to be able to keep them," Kaminski said in a podcast released by the journal Science, in which the study appears. The two also found that men and women receive promotions at about the same times.

In these fields overall, half of faculty will have departed within 10.9 years of their careers. One discipline bucks the overall trend, however. In mathematics, half of women leave by 4.45 years, and half of male faculty by 7.33 years into their careers, the study found. (A study released this week found that due to the demands of a professorship, many women choose motherhood over academics in math and science fields.)

But fewer women are entering these fields as faculty than men — in mechanical engineering, for example, only 10 percent of faculty hired are women, Kaminski said in the podcast.

While her research shows women are doing better once they enter careers, it's clear the inequity begins earlier, when students enter a field, then a career route, she said. "We have fewer women in the pool to begin with and fewer women are coming into the pipeline."

Given the lopsided gender ratio of those entering academia, as well as the length of faculty careers, it could take a century before STEM faculty positions are split evenly between men and women, they calculate.

"That will take us maybe 40 or 50 years before we are hiring at 50 percent and then another 40 or 50 years before that effect washes through the system. It's going to be 100 years," Kaminski said.

The researchers tracked the progress of 2,966 faculty members at 14 U.S. universities using public lists of faculty members in catalogs and bulletins. Kaminski pointed out that the overall retention of STEM faculty was not ideal.

"We have a very high rate of leaving, so our retention in academia is low," she said. "We lose half our people in 11 years."

The study is published in tomorrow's (Feb. 17) issue of the journal Science.

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