For Immediate Release
In her new book, "The Science Glass Ceiling" (Routledge, March
2004), Rosser identifies obstacles that prevent women engineers and scientists
from advancing at educational institutions and cause them to be underrepresented
Even though the number of women majoring in science and technology has increased since the 1960s, the percentage of those pursuing advanced degrees and moving into the academic community remains low. In fact, only 19.5 percent of science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities are women, with 10.4 percent being full professors, according to a 2000 National Science Foundation (NSF) study. At large research institutions, the percentages are even smaller.
The findings informed Rosser's discussion February 13 at the annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The
presentation was part of "Higher Education and Science Careers: Systemic
Transformations in the Role of Women in Science and Engineering."
"The scarcity of women in engineering and science leads to isolation,
lack of mentoring, performance stereotypes and difficulty in gaining credibility
from male colleagues - which creates a self-perpetuating cycle,"
Rosser said, explaining that women faculty members are important for attracting
and retaining women graduate students.
Rosser's new book stems from research she has conducted over the last
five years, beginning with a simple survey in 1998. At that time, Rosser
was organizing a conference for Professional Opportunities for Women in
Research and Education (POWRE), an NSF program that funded tenure-track
women engineers and scientists at large universities.
In preparation for the conference, Rosser contacted POWRE awardees from
1997, asking what significant issues they faced as women scientists and
engineers. To her surprise, nearly 63 percent of respondents singled out
"balancing work with family responsibilities" as their biggest
"This amazed me because the question was so open-ended," Rosser
said. "They could have said anything, such as funding."
Over the next three years, she repeated the survey with POWRE awardees
from 1998, 1999 and 2000 fiscal years and found even greater consensus
- 73 to 78 percent of respondents said that balancing career and family
was their major problem.
Family issues loom large because many women scientists and engineers
postpone children, Rosser observed: "By the time a woman completes
her doctoral degree and post-doc work, she is typically in her early thirties
-- an age where there is competition between the tenure clock and the
Dual careers further complicate family and work tensions. This is especially
true when both spouses are scientists, says Rosser, noting that 62 percent
of women faculty in the sciences and engineering are married to a scientist
or engineer who also faces heavy workloads.
Because POWRE awards typically go to women at large research universities,
Rosser was curious if similar problems existed at small liberal arts colleges,
which had a reputation for being more "family friendly."
With that in mind, Rosser surveyed winners of Clare Boothe Luce (CBL)
Professorships, a program that provides funding primarily to assistant
professors in engineering, science and mathematics at liberal arts colleges.
Seventy-five percent of CBL respondents cited "balancing family
and work" as their No. 1 problem, corroborating the results of the
POWRE surveys. According to one CBL award winner:
"A practical reality of biochemistry is that, to be highly successful, the scientist must inevitably spend long hours in the lab. This is particularly difficult for women who are trying to juggle small children with work."
The notion that small, private colleges provide more time and less pressure for women faculty than large research institutions was an illusion, Rosser discovered. "The pressures are just different," she says.
For example, faculty at small colleges shoulder higher teaching loads
than do faculty at large research institutions where graduate and post-doc
students are available to help teach labs and lecture courses. There's
also more pressure for faculty at smaller schools to attend ceremonies
and events like parents' weekend, which results in even less time for
writing grants and publishing research results - activities that help
A smaller school can become a trap, especially for women who are interested
in research, Rosser said: "In the short run, it might be a little
easier to integrate their personal life with work, but in the long run
they become disconnected from their research."
Rosser's book sheds light on specific issues that institutions must address
to attract and retain women scientists and engineers. "Because the
problem is systemic, solutions will vary from school to school,"
One encouraging initiative is NSF's
ADVANCE program, which replaced POWRE in 2001. Rather than providing
money to individuals, ADVANCE funds institutions to develop model policies
and practices that will break down barriers faced by women faculty.
Georgia Tech has received a $3.7 million award from ADVANCE, and Rosser
is a co-principal investigator to help administer those funds. Strategies
being developed at Georgia Tech include:
Educating male colleagues and supervisors is also critical. "Even
though the tenure clock may have been officially stopped, it doesn't always
stop in the minds of colleagues," Rosser pointed out.
Institutional policies that increase the satisfaction and success of women faculty in science and technology will achieve far-reaching results, Rosser said: "Such positive changes should have a ripple effect on women graduate and undergraduate students as they consider the wisdom of choosing a career in academia."
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