Monday, June 30, 2014

NSF Support of Women in Academia Since 1982

Nancy Morrison, The University of Toledo, Department of Physics and Astronomy (retired). Reproduced from the January 2014 Issue of STATUS: A Report on Women in Astronomy

The Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February, 2013, included a session on twentieth-century women in science. [1] This report, the second of two on this session, is based in part on the presentation by Sue V. Rosser, which was entitled, “Policy-Making for Women in Science: From NSF Visiting Professorship for Women to ADVANCE.”

Rosser is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University. Previously, she was professor, then dean at Georgia Tech. According to the introduction to her talk, she has been influential in starting women's studies programs; indeed, she has headed two at other universities. Important for her presentation was her experience as Senior Program Officer for Women's Programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF). [2]

The NSF has been supporting women's advancement in science, engineering, and mathematics careers since at least the early 1980's. Foremost among the early programs was the Visiting Professorships for Women (VPW) Program, launched in 1982. By funding mid-career and senior women scientists and engineers to make 6- to 18-month visits to institutions of their choice for research purposes, the program aimed to make those women more visible as role models for younger women at the host institutions. The last awards under this program were made in 1996. [3]

In 1997, the VPW and other programs were merged to create POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education.) [4] A “crosscutting” program, it acted across most, if not all, NSF disciplines. Unlike conventional NSF research grants, POWRE grants supported activities such as acquisition of new skills and exploratory research, and they provided focused support at critical career stages, e.g., after an interruption. Women in various positions were eligible. If they already held a faculty position, they could request support for activity at pretty much any sort of US or foreign academic or non-academic institution. If they held non-academic employment or were unemployed, the activity had to take place at a US academic institution, which would sponsor the proposal.

POWRE accepted proposals for only three years. Annually, it had total funding in the range $8 to $12 million and awarded over one hundred grants. Published abstract summaries [5] give insight into the program's support for its grant recipients: providing released time from teaching in order to re-establish a research program after prolonged illness; a visit to a foreign lab to acquire new skills; training in a new approach to a research field, thereby improving the prospects of a non- tenure track assistant professor for entering the tenure track; exploring new research approaches in mid-career; and a return to research after years spent in administration.

In 2001, POWRE was supplanted by ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers, likewise an NSF-wide program. Not a personal grant program, it accepts proposals from institutions' administrations for large-scale structural change designed to increase the participation and advancement of tenure-track faculty women. Emphasized are improvements in mentoring support, hiring practices, and work-life support. Smaller grants support self-studies and other activities in preparation for institutional transformation, especially for undergraduate and minority-serving institutions. [6]

From 2001 through 2008, 37 colleges and universities received the most substantial form of ADVANCE grant, the Institutional Transformation Award. Lesser but still significant awards were made to many additional colleges and universities. Based on experience gathered by awardees to that point, the 2009 brochure lists steps that universities can take on their own toward “a more equitable environment for women faculty.” [7]

Knowledge of the outlines of this history was assumed in Rosser's presentation, which was largely drawn from her latest book, Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science. [8] Among her activities at NSF, she was the agency's liaison with the POWRE awardees. Experience with that program showed that many of the obstacles faced by those women were caused by structural problems at the universities, and it partly motivated the ADVANCE program.

In order to tease out these issues, Rosser interviewed 400 POWRE awardees. To illustrate her findings, she related some individual stories, with the women’s names changed. Some of them illustrate the impact of the POWRE program on the awardees' careers.

For example, engineer “Sharon Smoakes” had a faculty position at a state university, but, on top of other problems, her department chair would not permit her to submit an NSF proposal. Thanks to NSF’s allowing her to submit through another institution, and thanks to her POWRE award, she was eventually offered a faculty position near her husband’s location in the Northeast. In another case, the POWRE grant to computer scientist “Mary Frail” enabled her to build a research career independently from her postdoc supervisor and eventually to obtain a tenure-track position.

Sue Rossier [2]
Other stories don’t cite the impact of the NSF program but illustrate the problems that academic women have faced in recent decades and still face today. Geologist “Sue Perimeter” said that, early in her graduate career, she was perceived as “a joke” because she was married and had a baby. Persevering, she applied to another program and succeeded there because of a more supportive climate. Biologist “Martine Ryeson” reported that she was not recommended for early promotion, even though a male professor with a weaker record was. She was eventually promoted, though, and subsequently obtained high-level administrative positions at other universities. Chemist “Angelina Longini” reported that geographical restrictions owing to her family situation required her to take a prolonged postdoc in which her supervisor “used her to run the lab.”

In the interviews with the younger women, Rosser found that bias has become more covert and that the issues that confront women have taken on new faces. In hiring interviews, questions about women’s plans to have a family have been replaced by the code question, “What are your plans for the future?” Overt sexual harassment by supervisors is less common than formerly, but negotiating the balance between career and family is, if anything, trickier than ever.

Rosser noted that women are learning to navigate these hazards, perhaps in part to her and her colleagues’ work. Environmental engineer “Karen Frost” was interviewing for a faculty position soon after the birth of a child. Because she had to pump her breasts periodically, she was careful in selecting places to interview. Perhaps surprisingly (or not?), she received an offer from a department full of older, entrenched males, who had no problem with her situation. In a similar search for a family- friendly program, physicist “Betsy Forest” looked out for signs of overwork, such as students sleeping in the office or lab, and took note of people’s reactions to her obvious pregnancy. POWRE awardees are more successful than average; many are on the tenure track, and all were able to beat the roughly 20% success rate of the POWRE program. Even they feel the effects of unconscious bias and of the “two-body problem,” which are still with us today. Thus, as Rosser emphasized in her presentation, the overt discrimination she faced in her time in the 1970’s as a scientist and parent has now taken on a new face.

Regarding unconscious bias, she reviewed the study by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and colleagues from Yale, [9] in which faculty from research universities rated the application materials for a laboratory manager position of a student who was randomly assigned a male or a female name. Regardless of age, faculty rank, or gender, the professors rated the fictitious male applicant higher, favored a higher starting salary, and contemplated offering more career mentoring, compared with the fictitious female applicant.

From her own experience, Rosser said, she not was surprised by the results of this study. As dean and provost, she has often seen bias in the tenure and promotion and the salary increment processes.

In hiring, the issue that most often derails hiring of women is the partner hire. Because of partner issues, women have more than their share of prolonged postdocs, which make their resumes seem less desirable to hiring committees. Partner issues also cause more women than men to be in urban locations that have more than one possible employer.

Rosser then turned to a review of the current status of women in academic science as viewed through the statistics of degree recipients and faculty position holders at various levels, broken down by field. The picture is familiar to readers of this newsletter: the proportion of women in each field declines from the Ph.D. recipient level through the faculty ranks. This pattern belies the “pipeline myth,” the belief that, if women entered the lower ranks of the profession, their numbers would propagate upward. In the data available through 2006, there are “leaks” in every level of the “pipeline.” This issue was another of the motivations for NSF’s ADVANCE program, which had as one of its goals enabling women to achieve senior positions such as dean, provost, and university president.

By comparison, the numbers for university presidents (some of whom are scientists) are interesting: of all college presidents, 26.4% were women as of 2012. In the eight Ivy League universities, there were four women presidents (but only one scientist or engineer). Two major technological institutions have or recently have had women presidents. Of the ten University of California chancellors – all scientists, engineers, or physicians – three are women. Four out of the Big Ten have women presidents. Among public universities and the Big Ten, there is a trend toward scientists and engineers as presidents. Rosser pointed out that, in the course of managing grants, running laboratories, and interacting with funding agencies, scientists acquire leadership skills that are applicable to heading a university.

Why is it important for women to be in leadership positions? In addition to the usual concerns about visibility and role modeling, leaders are critical for setting the agendas of organizations. For example, when Bernardine Healy became head of the National Institutes of Health, clinical studies on heart disease had been done mainly on men. Women with heart disease tended to be underdiagnosed and inappropriately treated. They had higher death rates from angioplasty and bypass surgery because, it turns out, women have smaller arteries than men, who were considered the norm for those techniques (also a problem for Asian men). As a result of activism, legal efforts, and women in leadership positions, meaningful research was done and lives were saved.

A significant trend for the future is society’s growing emphasis on technology transfer and innovation. In particular, funding has shifted from basic to applied research. A concern in this arena is a conspicuous gender effect in data on receipt of patents. For example, in pharmaceuticals, about 50% of the professionals are women, but women obtained only 21.4% of the patents in the US in 2001. Averaged over all countries and fields, women in 2001 obtained only 9.2% of the patents (up from 6.4% in 1993). The 2001 rates ranged from a low of 4.5% in Austria to a high of 17.5% in Spain; the US rate in 2001 was 11.1%. [10]

Detailed information is available from a study of MIT's biology department, where only 30% of the women faculty had patents, compared with 74% of the men. Although there was some age variation, essentially the same trend held for the younger women. For graduate students, the study found that, while men were trained to write patent applications, women training with the same mentor typically were not. Rosser recalled a similar feature of her graduate school years, when men students were typically trained to write grant proposals, but not women.

In order to investigate why women obtain patents at such low rates, Rosser interviewed women employed in Silicon Valley. The issues they identified are the same ones that have affected women in academic science: limited opportunities; the tendency for professionals to mentor and network with those who are like them; gender stereotypes; a tendency for women to avoid risk; and geographical constraints against gravitating toward technology “hot spots.” This is where the money and the prestige are going, and the women scientists and engineers are not there. With this background, it was a pleasure to read recently about a jump in the fraction of patents awarded to women in the years leading up to 2010. [11]

Another reason for concern about the gender gap in technology innovation is that men and women tend to innovate in different sectors. Women tend to develop products for women and for underserved groups, but these products turn out to be useful for everyone. For example, curb cuts are designed for wheelchair-bound people, but they are also helpful for maneuvering bicycles, baby strollers, and wheeled suitcases. If women continue to avoid or be shut out of the technology sector, the resulting loss of diversity will harm everyone.

Rosser’s presentation reminded the audience that the dramatic progress by women in science since the 1970’s is due in part to forward-looking NSF programs. At the same time, she reminded us how many problems remain to be solved. In the question session, I asked whether research has been done on the effects of ADVANCE, similar to her research on the outcomes of POWRE awardees. Her reply was that she is in the process of repeating the interviews of the POWRE awardees after a time lapse of ten to fifteen years. Several studies of ADVANCE by others are in progress; information is available on the Virginia Tech ADVANCE portal. [12] I plan to report on this topic in a future article.

References and Future Reading
[1] The session was held in celebration of the 25th anniversary of “the first multi-author collection of essays on the history of women in science, Uneasy Careers & Intimate Lives, Women in Science, 1789– 1979.” The speakers were Margaret Walsh Rossiter (Cornell University), Sue V. Rosser (San Francisco State University), Nancy G. Slack (The Sage Colleges), and Pnina G. Abir-Am (Brandeis University). Audio recordings of all the speakers and the slides from Rosser and Slack are available for sale here: http://
[2] A summary of Rosser’s distinguished career can be found at, which is also the source of the illustration.
[3] For more information: nsf9928.htm
[6] For more information: index.php/about, pims_id=5383
[8] 2012, NYU Press
[9] 2012/09/14/1211286109.abstract, September 2012
[11] trademarks-recent-years
[12] workandlife

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