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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2006

Bias & Discrimination Saddle Women’s Advancement

Bias and discrimination, and not innate ability, are the reasons why female academics are underrepresented in many fields of science and engineering, according to a report issued last month by the National Academies in the United States.
In their 364-page report, called Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, the authors noted that while women make up an increasing proportion of science and engineering majors at all institutions, they continue to form just a small share of the faculty at America’s research universities.
Women, the report adds, are underrepresented in top positions in the academy due to “unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women.”
The authors categorically reject the view that the gender gap is the result of innate differences in ability between the sexes. This argument, voiced most prominently by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, was echoed last month by University of Western Ontario psychologist Philippe Rushton, who suggested the “glass ceiling” phenomenon is due to inferior intelligence rather than discrimination.
A key finding in the report noted that “studies have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and leadership positions in science and technology fields.”
Most likely factors that work against women in these fields, the report said, include workplace environments that are biased against women, the questioning of women’s commitment to an academic career, and a salary and promotion system that is purportedly based on merit, but in fact rewards characteristics such as “assertiveness” that may be viewed as socially unacceptable traits for women but suitable for men.
The report calls for university administrators to take the lead in recruiting, retaining and promoting women into faculty and leadership positions and for federal funding agencies and professional societies to ensure their rules support the participation of women.

The report is available for purchase from the National Academies Press, or can be read online for free at 11741.html.