Women still outnumbered in science, engineering departments

Justin Armburger

Kent State’s science departments are recognized around the world for contributions their programs make toward advancements in technology. Outstanding researchers and up-to-date technology are a few things the labs are certainly not lacking.

There is one key component, however, that is lacking: Women.

Out of the 20 tenure-track faculty in the physics department, only four are women, physics chair Bryon Anderson said.

Kent State isn’t the only university that has a lack of women in the faculty in its science departments. According to data recorded by the National Science Foundation, in 2003, only 28 percent of all full-time science and engineering faculty positions were held by women.

“It’s my personal opinion that the most difficult transition for women in science lies in the years immediately after completion of the Ph.D.,” said Robin Selinger, a professor in the chemical physics interdisciplinary program.

Though women only hold 25 percent of the tenure-track faculty positions in the physics department, Anderson said this is a higher percentage than what is found nationwide.

“My understanding is it (the national average) is about 10 to 12 percent,” Anderson said. “When you have four women and one leaves, it drops the average down significantly.”

In the Liquid Crystal Institute, Selinger said out of nine faculty members, she is the only woman.

A congressional hearing held Oct. 17 focused on the lack of faculty members who are women in colleges and universities and ways to recruit them.

Some strategies for bringing in more women as faculty members are offering childcare grants for professional conferences and flexible tenure timelines for faculty with young children.

“I think what should be done is done,” Anderson said. “If a woman is pregnant, they should have a liberal policy leave so that they get time off to do that, and be with the child for sometime afterward. Their position is never considered to be at risk at that time.”

Something else that should be considered is whether the universities or society in general are making it difficult for women to hold these positions.

In 2000, Selinger applied for a position as a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Out of the 60 faculty members in the department, 59 were men.

“I think that they were under very strong advice from the administration that the gender ratio needed to change,” Selinger said.

John West, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies, said though the issue of hiring women in the faculty in these departments is getting better, it is not completely resolved.

“I think that well-qualified women in the sciences receive a good review,” West said. “There’s always issues of (making sure) that we’re dealing with everybody fairly, but my observation would be that a well-qualified female candidate for a faculty position would be viewed favorably.”

In a field such as physics, Selinger said, a scientist sometimes has to search nationwide for a suitable placement, which can require a long-distance move.

“The vast majority of women in science are partnered with scientists or other individuals with ambitious career plans, while the majority of men in science have partners who are not scientists and can more easily relocate,” Selinger said.

This is the case for Selinger. Her husband, Jonathan Selinger, is a faculty member of the institute. The two met while attending college at Harvard.

“We were finishing our Ph.Ds at Harvard and had to find jobs,” Selinger said. “We were desperate to find a geographic match.”

Robin got a job offer in Houston, while Jonathan received one in New Jersey. Instead of taking those jobs, however, they decided to take post-doctoral positions at UCLA. During that time, the couple had their first child, which made it more difficult than ever to take jobs in different areas of the country.

“The reality is that two parents working and raising children is hard enough,” Selinger said. “Trying to work and live in separate households is unthinkable.”

Also, just a few decades ago, many women didn’t even aspire to be scientists or engineers.

“The number of women rarely comes up to 25 percent in programs like engineering and such,” Anderson said. “A lot has to do with pressure in the homes as girls are growing up, the examples set for them and the kinds of attitudes in their family, which were reinforced with school.”

Though all these are factors, they are slowly being broken down, Anderson said.

West said it’s an evolving process.

“While I think we’ve been making good efforts, I think there’s more that can be done,” he said. “We are over the initial hurdles of gender bias in an academy.”

Contact science reporter Justin Armburger at [email protected].