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Striving to Keep Diversity in the Formula

• May 08, 2009 • 12:58 AM

Tom Price is blogging for Miller-McCune.com from the 3rd annual Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers.

Gathering good data about students, teachers and their lives is essential to promoting diversity in the scientific work force, researchers said during a conference in a Washington, D.C., suburb today.

The three-day conference in Bethesda, Md., organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attracted scholars and administrators who manage programs designed to attract and retain women and minorities in science.

The National Science Foundation’s Advance program is repeatedly told that “the best thing (the program) has done is given data to the deans,” said Jessie DeAro, a director in the program. Advance — designed to increase women’s participation in academic science and engineering careers — awards grants for both research and implementation.

The research has shown the importance of consistently collecting data about life on campus, such as gathering information on the number of women in science positions and conducting surveys to measure faculty attitudes, DeAro said.

Larger numbers of women are earning scientific degrees, DeAro said, but that progress is not reflected in their share of faculty and administration positions.

Research has identified reasons for the disparity to include bias, work-family conflicts, lack of female role models in academic leadership and unequal access to resources.

“Retention of male and female faculty is related to satisfaction with their work-life balance,” DeAro said. Women are disproportionately affected by work-life issues because they tend to be saddled with most of the responsibility for child care and care for elderly relatives, she said.

DeAro said solutions for these problems include:

  • Identifying, and informing administration and faculty leaders about, barriers to gender equality.
  • Addressing bias. “Explicit bias is on the decline,” DeAro said, but both men and women are influenced by “implicit bias.” Many believe men are more risk-taking, she said, so a man’s research proposal can be viewed as riskier and thus more exciting. The solution, she said, is to give decision-makers adequate time to decide without tapping their implicit bias.
  • Revising hiring and promotion policies to ease work-life conflicts. Automatic extension of the tenure clock, for men and women, when a child is born or adopted, makes mothers less likely to not seek an extension for fear it would damage her career, DeAro said. “Make these things every-day, not unusual,” she said.
  • Establishing formal career-support activities. Women are disadvantaged when career support is informal at traditionally male-dominated institutions, DeAro said.
  • Institutionalizing diversity so “it’s everybody’s job,” not dependent on specific administrators but built into the system.

Watson Scott Swail, president and senior research scientist at the Education Policy Institute, made similar comments about retaining students in scientific fields.

Before an institution can improve retention programs, he said, it needs to know “what we are doing now and does it work?” After programs are implemented, they must be monitored and assessed.

Colleges need to know more about their students, Swail added. Schools know a great deal about students’ academic records and cognitive skills, but they know little about their students’ social attributes, which can be more important to their campus success, he said.

Swail said it would help if teachers assessed their students’ performance after the first week of classes.

“You have to have an early-warning system to tell you when you have an issue,” he explained. “The students who need it are the least likely to ask for help. If you don’t know, you can’t help them. If you wait till mid-semester to check on a student, it’s too late.”

Swail also emphasized the need to institutionalize reforms. Externally funded efforts often cease when the money runs out, he said, adding, “That’s not systemic change.”

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Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

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