Karela Fry

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Maths or motherhood

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The years in which a scientist is forging her career are the same years in which her fertility (represented by number of ovarian follicles, green line) reaches its peak and begins to decline.

An article in American Scientist claims that having and raising children is the last remaining barrier to gender equality in academia:

Jennifer was an extremely talented undergraduate, majoring in mathematics and engineering. Her grades and test scores were nearly perfect; her professors saw a bright future for her as an engineering professor and encouraged her to pursue a doctorate. In graduate school, she continued to excel, accumulating high-quality publications, fellowships and awards. She landed a premier postdoctoral position and was headed for a first-tier professorship. But she never applied for a tenure-track academic job. As a 33-year-old postdoc, she could not imagine waiting to have children until after tenure at age 40, nor could she imagine how she would juggle caring for a young family with the omnipresent demands of an assistant professorship. The harried lives of the two tenured mothers in her department convinced her that such a path was not for her. Jennifer made the choice to have a family and teach mathematics part-time at a local community college.

Although it’s not hard to find evidence of women professors’ many successes in the academy, scenarios like Jennifer’s are all too common. Women hold a substantial portion of professorships in the humanities and liberal arts, and they are well represented in the social sciences and some fields of natural science, such as biology. Overall, women make up 33 percent of faculty at doctoral-level institutions. They receive many teaching and service awards and do as well as men in winning grants. But women are in short supply in math-intensive fields, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and computer science. For example, in the top 100 U.S. universities in 2007, women full professors in these fields numbered only 4.4 to 12.3 percent, and women were only 16 to 27 percent of assistant professors.

It is a well-reasoned article, and the conclusions are worth thinking about. However, the article does not really offer a reason for the subject-wise imbalance.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm

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