Monday, March 22, 2010

Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate: vol. 2

Continuing my summary of the Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate that I began last week:

When scientists try to address a problem, we focus on the data. So a good bit of the meeting was devoted to data on postdocs, or at least what there is of it. It turns out that it's fairly hard to even count the number of postdocs in the country. Even within a single institution, it might be hard to count the number of postdocs, because titles and funding sources are not uniform. Nevertheless, some statistics do exist, and those sources include the NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) and Survey of Doctoral Recipients (SDR); and Sigma Xi's "Professionalizing the Postdoctoral Experience, with highlights summarized in Doctors Without Orders. I wasn't able to write down all the statistics presented, but the presentations should all be made available online eventually.

So why "Gender and the Postdoctorate"? First, the length of the postdoctoral period is lengthening across all disciplines. Second, in comparing different disciplines, the longer the postdoctoral period, the fewer women make it to the tenure track. In astronomy, for example, spending six years as a postdoc is pretty common, so this is a cause for concern for women in astronomy in particular. I should note that attendance was heavy on the biosciences, but many of the take home points apply to all postdocs in any science discipline. A report by the National Academies' Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CSWEM) notes that once women make it onto the tenure track, they succeed on par with men: it's making that transition to begin with that's important.

Donna Ginther (an economist) presented some interesting data on the effect of marriage and family on hiring and promotion. Basicially, she found no effect on hiring and promotion on the tenure track between single men and women. And indeed, once on the tenure track, there were only small differences between men in women in terms of promotion, regardless of marital state or children. However, mothers were 8% less likely to get hired in the first place than fathers. In sum, gender differences could be pretty much entirely explained by family status.

It was noted that while work-life balance is important to both men and women, if you look at the reasons why men and women leave academia, men most commonly cite monetary reasons, while salary doesn't even make the top 10 list for women.

Here's where I think that the AAS's Longitudinal Survey will really help. By following a cohort of young astronomers as they advance in their careers, we can learn what helps people stay in astronomy, why others leave, and what we can do to reduce gender disparity at all levels. I hope that the next edition of the survey asks specifically about children, to see if it really is borne out (no pun intended?) that childbirth and childrearing do affect one's career, and to figure out ways to mitigate their impact.