TOPICS > Science

Report Finds Bias Against Women in Science and Engineering

September 19, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: In university settings, it has long been assumed that the best and the brightest hold the most prestigious positions. But when it comes to the sciences, women have been missing from that formula.

As a debate raged at Harvard and elsewhere about innate ability, discrimination, and mommy tracks, the National Academy of Sciences set out to discover the real reason for the roadblock. University of Miami President Donna Shalala chaired the panel looking into the issue and joins us now with its conclusions.

President Shalala, welcome.

DONNA SHALALA, President, University of Miami: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying in your report that there are women in the pipeline, but they’re just not at the top?

DONNA SHALALA: They’re just not being hired by America’s best universities, and that’s the interesting thing about what we found. We were surprised. The gap between boys and girls in high school in math has closed. Half of the students in our undergraduate institutions who are in science are women, so women are getting the degrees.

And then a smaller number, of course, are going on to get PhDs. But when they do get a PhD, they’re not being hired in commensurate numbers for faculty positions. And so, in engineering and in science, there still is a dearth of women in those professions.

It has nothing to do with ability, the quality of their degrees, their ability to do science. All those issues we looked at in an exhaustive study of the science.

Inadvertent discrimination

GWEN IFILL: So what does it have to do with?

DONNA SHALALA: It has to do with the climate of the departments, with the fact that we tend in the academic world to reproduce ourselves. We look at a young woman and say, "Does that look like a scientist?" Particularly an all-male department.

And, of course, the most productive years and the years in which you're trying to get tenure, that seven-year track, are also the child-bearing years. So we've got a rigid system in higher education; it needs to be more flexible, I think, for men and for women.

But it's a combination of the climate, the inability to recognize when we are, in fact, discriminating. Much of this is inadvertent. And we found patterns of discrimination that reflect both women's attitudes, as well as men's attitudes. We need to do better, because we cannot be competitive as a nation. You can't leave out half your talent and be competitive in science around the world.

GWEN IFILL: You are now president of a university. You were chancellor of another major university. You were secretary of health and human services. You have a PhD, yet you say in this report that you were told on more than one occasion that you were a bad investment?

DONNA SHALALA: That's exactly right, but that was 30 years ago, and very few women were coming through PhD programs. When I was a graduate student in political science and economics at Syracuse, there were no tenured women on the faculty. That simply isn't true now.

And that's the point: The pools are there. The desire by young women to go into science is clearly there. The National Academy appointed women to the panel who were distinguished, world-class scientists and engineers, but they're not being hired by the university.

We have to look at ourselves. And, in fact, we have to make an extraordinary effort to make sure that we don't leave out talent. And I expect, over the next 5 to 10 years, that this report to have a major impact on the culture of higher education, who we hire, how we support them.

Keys to success

GWEN IFILL: Now, about this time of year last year, maybe a little longer ago, President Larry -- then-President Larry Summers at Harvard kind of brought this debate, for better or worse, into the public discussion area by saying that there were or suggesting that women lacked the innate ability to excel at science. Does this put that argument to an end?

DONNA SHALALA: It knocks it out of the park. Larry, a very good friend of mine, a colleague of mine in the Clinton administration, he raised a number of issues.

We reviewed the science, the biology, the cognitive science, the brain studies. There's just no evidence that women can't do great science and can't be great computer scientists and engineers. And we reviewed all of that science. This report has a whole chapter.

And you'll never need to ask that question again. It's very clear that the ability is there, the desire is there. What we need to do in universities is to make sure we give people opportunity.

GWEN IFILL: So when women do succeed in these fields, how does it happen?

DONNA SHALALA: Well, sometimes it's in despite of the situation. And every woman on our panel had a story.

A very great scientist, Maria Zuber at MIT, who is a professor of geophysics, told the story about the fact that she used her initials as opposed to her first name, Maria, when she submitted articles to journals. Journals that have decided to take people's names off the articles when they send them out for review have found that more women get through that review process.

And so there are a number of things that we need to do with our journals, with our professional organizations, with the funding agencies to make sure we are not organizing ourselves for this kind of bias.

Bridging the gender gap

GWEN IFILL: OK. Give me a couple of examples of the sorts of things that all these different -- not just the academic institutions -- but everyone at large, the government even, should be doing.

DONNA SHALALA: Well, for example, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation most recently has called in all the chemistry chairs in the country of the major research universities, put them through training, let them hear from young women who are in chemistry departments the kind of problems that they were having.

The NIH and the National Science Foundation, the other government funding agencies, could make their grants so that people could use a little of the money to pay for child care. The fact is, if you're a young woman, and you're married, and you have children, you may need some child care help to be able during that period of time in which you're trying to get tenure to do great science.

That could be as true for young men, because often it's couples that we're trying to support. So we need to introduce flexibility, both in the time frames in which people have to do their research and to get their tenure, but also the kind of support systems.

We also have to make sure that we support their science. There's clear evidence that women don't get the same levels of support in terms of equipment, in terms of access to grants, in terms of honors and awards.

GWEN IFILL: And on campuses themselves, that is where this problem has to be undertaken first?

DONNA SHALALA: Absolutely. It's the leaders of America's research universities and our department chairs and our faculties, in particular, that have to understand and read this report carefully, understand what's going on. If they want to be excellent, if they want to be competitive, then they don't want to leave out any talent.

This report is about excellence. It's about this nation continuing to be competitive for the very best science in the world and the very best scientists.

GWEN IFILL: Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, thank you very much.

DONNA SHALALA: You're welcome.