Monday, January 22, 2007

Women in higher education (including science)

The presidency of Harvard is something like a symbolic top of the heap in American higher education, and so the uproar that drove Lawrence Summers out of the job last year made national headlines. The authors of a new book on women in science recently made some interesting comments about that episode in the online magazine "Inside Higher Ed".

Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, professors at Cornell, report that "some scholars felt that they could not contribute (essays to the book) because their views were scorned, and had resulted in personal attacks against them on their campuses. If you read between the lines in several of the essays, you will detect this theme even among those who did contribute essays...." In other words, the professors re-discovered what Summers arguably should have known: that even wondering something like whether the gender imbalance in higher education might not be due to discrimination is a third rail on today's campuses. In a word, yecch.

Much more positive was the news (to me anyway) that women have in just the last decade or two become drastically more prominent at the top levels in higher education. Three Ivy League universities now have female presidents (Brown, Penn and Princeton) as do plenty of other well-known schools (hundreds of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., according to one study). Actually Harvard's world-famous law school is now led by a woman (who is, according to the New York Times, on the short list for the university's top job). One might see progress, of a sort, in things like the female president of the University of New Hampshire being headhunted away by Temple, or the female president of the University of Colorado getting hounded from her job partly for being tonedeaf in much the same way Summers was (on a different topic). No glass ceiling here, for good and ill. (Including the ultimately tragic story of the chancellor of the University of California.)

I also did not know that women are now earning more than half of all bachelor's degrees, 43% of all master's degrees and more than a third of all doctorates in science and engineering in the U.S. If those trend lines continue up (the doctorate fraction has almost quintupled since 1966) then obviously that will filter up through academia (it's already led to sharp increases in the percentage of women employed in various scientific and engineering fields, in some cases to more than half.)

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