A ‘leaky pipeline’ persists for female academics seeking advancement in STEM fields

The numbers of female students and PhD recipients in science, technology, engineering and math has grown in recent years, as the National Science Foundation has encouraged efforts to attract more women to enter the STEM fields. Still, the advancement of women faculty in these areas hasn’t increased at the same rate, especially in leadership positions.

Researchers Diana Bilimoria and Xiangfen Liang examine the phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline”—and the outcomes of the recent steps that leading universities are taking to reduce the leaks—in their newly published book, Gender Equity in Science and Engineering: Advancing Change in Higher Education.

Bilimoria is a professor of organizational behavior at Weatherhead School of Management, where her research focuses on gender and diversity in governance and leadership.

Liang is an independent researcher and consultant in higher education and organizational behavior. Previously, Liang was a senior research associate at the Weatherhead School.

“Universities are trying many different things, and this book is a compendium of the innovative practices that universities can undertake to increase inclusion and diversify their work forces,” Bilimoria said. “The ideal worker in science and engineering is someone who is perceived as being devoted to scientific work to the exclusion of other responsibilities, and that sometimes can be an added challenge for women.”

The book takes a detailed, fresh look at the pace of gender equity, particularly in science and engineering. Bilimoria and Liang explain a variety of diversity and inclusion initiatives and their institutional outcomes. They describe transformational actions undertaken at the level of the whole university (e.g., faculty policy changes), at the level of schools and departments (e.g., leadership development of deans and chairs), and at the level of individual faculty (e.g., providing mentors for pre-tenure faculty).

The researchers focused on 19 universities and colleges that received funding from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program. The authors note that the ADVANCE initiative has generated significant improvements.

The most prominent improvements observed were consistent increases in the proportions of women faculty in science and engineering fields; more systemic attention to salary distributions and resource equity among faculty, some increases in the inclusion of women in senior leadership positions, and improvements in specific facets of the academic workplace culture and climate. The authors noted increased campuswide awareness of gender issues, improved work-life integration, an increased faculty voice provided to women, and improved overall recognition of the factors leading to faculty success and retention at these universities.

However, their research finds that issues remain regarding gender equity and inclusion outcomes, particularly the challenge of unsupportive workplace climates and traditional career advancement systems at the nation’s research universities. According to 2011 NSF data, among science and engineering doctorate holders with academic faculty positions in four-year colleges and universities, females remain significantly less likely than males to be found in full professor positions.

Bilimoria and Liang recommend that gender equity data be more completely tracked and research findings shared regularly among decision makers, such as deans, department chairs, faculty search committees, and promotion and tenure committees.

“This book is a product of a 10-year professional journey,” Bilimoria said. “It provides a comprehensive, stand-alone description of successful approaches to increase the recruitment, advancement and retention of women faculty throughout the academic career pipeline.”

Research for Gender Equity in Science and Engineering was supported by the NSF. The book, which debuted in January, is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.