Breaking Down Gender Barriers: New Book Looks at Roadblocks Impeding Women Scientists & Engineers

In her new book, "The Science Glass Ceiling" (Routledge, March 2004), Rosser identifies obstacles that prevent women engineers and scientists from advancing at educational institutions and cause them to be underrepresented among faculty.

Even though the number of women majoring in science and technology has increased since the 1960s, the percentage of those pursuing advanced degrees and moving into the academic community remains low. In fact, only 19.5 percent of science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities are women, with 10.4 percent being full professors, according to a 2000 National Science Foundation (NSF) study. At large research institutions, the percentages are even smaller.

The findings informed Rosser's discussion February 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The presentation was part of "Higher Education and Science Careers: Systemic Transformations in the Role of Women in Science and Engineering."

"The scarcity of women in engineering and science leads to isolation, lack of mentoring, performance stereotypes and difficulty in gaining credibility from male colleagues - which creates a self-perpetuating cycle," Rosser said, explaining that women faculty members are important for attracting and retaining women graduate students.

Rosser's new book stems from research she has conducted over the last five years, beginning with a simple survey in 1998. At that time, Rosser was organizing a conference for Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE), an NSF program that funded tenure-track women engineers and scientists at large universities.

In preparation for the conference, Rosser contacted POWRE awardees from 1997, asking what significant issues they faced as women scientists and engineers. To her surprise, nearly 63 percent of respondents singled out "balancing work with family responsibilities" as their biggest challenge.

"This amazed me because the question was so open-ended," Rosser said. "They could have said anything, such as funding."

Over the next three years, she repeated the survey with POWRE awardees from 1998, 1999 and 2000 fiscal years and found even greater consensus - 73 to 78 percent of respondents said that balancing career and family was their major problem.

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