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Modernizing initiatives for women in science

Sex-discrimination no longer explains women's underrepresentation in the mathematical sciences, according to Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors found negligible discrimination against women in the key processes of journal reviewing, grant funding, and job hiring.  It seems like historic initiatives to fight sex-discrimination has been effective in those areas, but we still have an underrepresentation of women in the math-intensive fields.  In leading U.S. universities, women make up less than 10 percent of full professors and less than a fifth of tenure-track positions in many areas of the mathematical sciences. 

Ceci and Williams propose that underrepresentation comes from choices that women face related to childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle preferences, and other issues surrounding family formation.  Current policies for dealing with the imbalance still operate under the assumption that sex-discrimination is the root problem.  However, if Ceci and Williams are right, we need an updated approach to see further improvements.

The hours and workload of tenure-track positions at top universities serve as a serious deterrent for those who value time for balancing responsibilities between work and home.  Pregnancies and caring for young children disproportionally affect women more than men.   Modern initiatives and policies should focus on making academic positions more suitable for balanced lifestyles.

Multiple agencies have made recommendations: the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests putting holds on tenure clocks and allowing tenure positions to vacillate between part-time and full-time; and the Gender Equity Committees propose, among a list of things, giving women with child-rearing duties more time to work on grants and reducing teaching loads for women with newborns.  Some universities have already implemented programs to support families.  For example, UC-Berkeley has programs that provide childcare and summer camps, while advising committees to ignore gaps in the CV that result from family responsibilities. 

Initiatives that provide extra support for families wouldn't just benefit women; it would also make math-intensive fields friendlier to men who want a better balance between work and home.  When there is an overall improvement in the workplace, equality will be more achievable for everyone, regardless of sex.

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