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Increasing Women’s Representation in STEMM Fields Will Require Culture Change Driven by Systemic Actions by Higher Education Institutions, Funding Agencies, Congress

Feb. 28, 2020

Increasing Women’s Representation in STEMM Fields Will Require Culture Change Driven by Systemic Actions by Higher Education Institutions, Funding Agencies, Congress

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urges systemic action to change the culture in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) to address the underrepresentation of women in these fields. Colleges and universities should implement promising strategies and practices that can support improved recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM, as evidenced by research and real-world success stories, using an iterative approach that accounts for institutional context.

Although the report says that much of the leadership responsibility falls on the nation’s colleges and universities to remedy inequities within the academic community, it also offers recommendations targeted at government leaders and professional societies. “Leaders at federal agencies, policymakers in Congress, scientific and professional societies, and the White House can all play a powerful role in promoting transparency and accountability and in supporting and rewarding evidence-based actions to promote greater equity and diversity in the STEMM enterprise,” said Rita Colwell, chair of the committee that developed the report, and former director of the National Science Foundation. 

The report offers institutions practical strategies to support recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM—such as ways to expand networks of job candidates, guidance on how to write job advertisements and conduct interviews inclusively, strategies to mitigate bias in hiring and promotion decisions, resources that support the work-life needs of STEMM professionals and students, and approaches to more effectively and inclusively approach STEMM educational practices.

While there are numerous evidence-based strategies that have been shown to effectively improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of white women at research intensive universities, additional research is needed to understand how to support more effectively the participation of women of color and women of other intersecting identities in a range of institutional contexts, the report says.  

The new report is the culmination of the work of two committees, one of which contributed actively to the report’s content through Dec. 10, 2019, and the other which contributed actively to the report starting on Dec. 11 through its peer review, completion, and publication. “Both committees contributed in important ways to the development of the report, which I believe will serve as an important resource for those working to address this critical problem,” said Colwell, who chaired the latter committee.

Disparities Persist, Especially for Women of Color

In recent years, the absolute number of women earning degrees across STEMM fields has increased relative to men, but women – especially women of color – are still underrepresented in these fields relative to their presence in the workforce and the U.S. population. The disparities differ by discipline. In 2016, for example, fewer than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in both computer science and physics and 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in engineering; gender disparities in participation are seen by the time students enter college. In contrast, in the fields of biology, medicine, and chemistry, women are at or near parity among degree earners and early career professionals, but encounter barriers and biases that block advancement into senior positions.

In theory, this underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles should diminish organically over time, but past patterns indicate that time alone may be insufficient to close existing gaps. In medicine, for example, women have for the last 25 years comprised at least 40 percent of U.S. medical students, yet as of 2018, women accounted for only 18 percent of hospital CEOs and 16 percent of medical school deans and department chairs.

The bulk of evidence indicates that underrepresentation of women in STEMM is driven by a wide range of structural, cultural, and institutional patterns of bias, discrimination, and inequity that do not affect men of comparable ability and training, the report says. These factors are often experienced more overtly and intensely by women of intersecting identities, such as women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQIA women.

Colleges and Universities Should Use Targeted Interventions to Drive Change

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for all institutions, the report says. Rather than provide a single “blueprint” for action, the report offers a process institutions should follow to drive change.

In order to find an approach that will work within a specific institutional context, higher education institutions should use an iterative process at the level of the school or department to identify specific problems and to select and target their interventions. Institutions should start by collecting and analyzing data to diagnose gender and racial disparities in recruitment, retention, and advancement, and then pilot evidence-based practices to address such shortcomings. Schools should repeat the data collection to determine whether the pilot is working or needs adjustment, iterate, and then institutionalize effective practices through policy changes.

Research literature and focus groups carried out during the study point to a common set of conditions that support institutional adoption of practices to improve women’s representation: committed leadership at all levels; resources – human and financial – dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and success for women; accountability and data collection; and adoption of an intersectional approach that concretely addresses challenges faced by women of color and other groups who encounter multiple biases.

Policies Should Increase Accountability

Federal funding agencies should hold grantee institutions accountable for adopting effective practices to address gender disparities in recruitment, retention, and advancement, the report says. Agencies should consider institutional and individual researchers’ efforts to support greater equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of the proposal compliance, review, and award process. For example, NSF should revise the guidance to grantees on NSF’s “Broader Impact” statements, and NIH should revise the guidance to grantees on the “Significance” section in the research plan to include an explicit statement on efforts by the prospective grantee and/or institution to promote greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in science, engineering, and medicine.

Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government should also work together to increase transparency and accountability among federal agencies by requiring data collection, analysis, and reporting on the nature and impact of efforts to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM, with an emphasis on those existing efforts that take an intersectional approach.

The report will be discussed at a symposium on March 19.

The study – conducted by the Committee on Increasing the Number of Women in STEMM with substantial contributions by the Committee on Understanding and Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Particular Science and Engineering Disciplines – was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and L’Oreal USA. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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