Perceptions of Women in Academic Science
Elaine Howard Ecklund Principal Investigator
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Intellectual Merit: The findings from this study further knowledge of underlying reasons for the lack of gender diversity in academic science. Building on the nexus of existing research, this study examines women's and men's self-reported reasons for pursuing academic science careers as well as the perceptions both genders have of women's contributions to academic science. The research expands recent scholarly findings related to the role perceptions have in decisions related to pursuing careers in academic science. Expanding research on this topic provides new directions for understanding the origins of and remedies for the under-representation of women in academic science. <br/><br/>The primary conceptual model used to understand science careers has been a rigid pipeline of ordered stages in which success is measured by early entry, consistent progress through consecutive educational steps, and subsequent employment in a science career. Under this model, failure is marked by an exit from the pipeline. Neither entry from another career track nor reentry is typically conceptualized as a success. Yet, research has shown that, unlike men, most women who earn bachelors degrees in science and engineering transition from non-science majors. Therefore, while the science pipeline metaphor accurately describes the experiences of many men, it fails to capture the experiences of many women. In contrast, this study develops the research metaphor of a freeway, with entry on-ramps and exits possible at multiple points along the way. <br/><br/>Through a survey administered to 2,500 individuals coupled with 150 life history interviews, this research illuminates the recalled experiences of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as well as assistant, associate, and full professors in two core academic science fields, biology and physics, from the twenty top U.S. graduate programs in these fields. Researchers show that recalled experiences shape current beliefs, actions and interactions. Understanding the recalled experiences of this population is particularly important because those in elite programs train future leaders who shape science policy related to industry, government, and academics. <br/><br/>Broader impact: Findings practically illuminate effective approaches to encouraging the presence of women in science, make faculty more aware of their preconceptions about women in science, and have broad media appeal. In particular, understanding experiences and perceptions at the crucial turning point in the science career process--decisions made during undergraduate education--provides the necessary research underpinnings to build university policies and practices that encourage interest in science majors and careers among women.