Where did all the women go?

Posted by at 10:39AM

Last Tuesday at the Stanford Women’s Community Center, Terry Root, a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for her work on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC), came to discus challenges she’s faced in as a woman in the scientific community. Her first experience with sexism in academics came from her own father, who asserted “Girls aren’t supposed to be good at math”, when informed of Terry’s outstanding grade on a middle school math exam. She proceeded to become a math major at the University of New Mexico, later going on to pursue biology at the University of Colorado, and getting her PhD in the subject at Princeton. Historically women have had it rough in academia.
Now the gender gap is skewed in favor of women, with female students continuing to outnumber male students, in the admission process as well as enrollment. It is estimated that 56% of undergraduates in the US are women. While women are adequately represented in the undergraduate population, those numbers diminish as we look at the next steps on the institutional ladder.
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The number of women working towards a masters or PhD is significantly higher than it was in the pre-Title IX era, but we are still disproportionately underrepresented. This trend is also manifested in number of tenured female faculty at many universities. It’s been 36 years since Congress passed Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, but sadly, we still have a long way to go. Currently, it is estimated that only 24% of full professorships in the US go to women, and this number is even lower at the top research institutions, and only up about 10% higher since the enactment of Title IX (the number of women faculty pre-Title IX is unclear, but somewhere between 3-17%, varying based upon discipline).
About 2 years ago, Stanford enacted a policy that would grant a 2-quarter maternity leave to female graduate students, aimed to increase the retention of women in PhD programs. Despite this groundbreaking policy, only 36% of the Stanford graduate student population are women (2007 statistic). What’s going on here?
Terry talked about discrimination she had faced at various institutions, and her struggle to thrive in bigoted academic environments. Today the threat is more insidious, but still persistent. Her inspiring talk has been recorded and will be the first in a series of recorded lectures to be uploaded onto Stanford iTunes. So if you missed one of our events because of class or other commitments, keep an eye out for new WCC Women at Work recorded lecture series on Stanford iTunes.
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Look for the link and other WCC updates at http://wcc.stanford.edu

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