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Women in STEM Panel Calls for More Agency Action

APR 15, 2020
A new National Academies report recommends federal agencies do more to hold grantee institutions and themselves accountable for remedying the persistent underrepresentation of women in STEM fields across disciplines and career stages.
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Science Policy Analyst

Cover illustration of the new National Academies report on promising practices for increasing the representation of women across STEM fields.

Cover illustration of the new National Academies report on promising practices for increasing the representation of women across STEM fields.

(Image credit – National Academies)

The National Academies released a report last month recommending actions to address “entrenched patterns” of women being underrepresented across STEM disciplines and in leadership roles within fields. The report was assembled through the efforts of two committees chaired respectively by Rita Colwell, the first woman to serve as National Science Foundation director, and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to fly in space.

The report attributes this persistent underrepresentation in part to a need for “greater prioritization and resource allocation by institutions toward targeted, data-driven equity and diversity efforts.” Although the report notes federal science agencies and other research organizations have made progress in addressing disparities, it calls on them to play a stronger role in catalyzing “culture change,” such as by formally auditing grantee diversity practices and modifying grant review criteria.

The report explains that it differs from other recent National Academies studies on the subject by “placing emphasis on the experiences of women of color and women from other marginalized groups who experience intensified biases and barriers,” such as those related to disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This “double bind” of intersecting biases remains a major issue facing STEM fields, the report states.

Recommendations center on transparency and accountability

Some of the report’s main recommendations for federal science agencies focus on ways to improve transparency around their diversity efforts and increase the accountability of grantee institutions.

The report calls on individual agencies to perform “equity audits” to assess whether grantee institutions are “working in good faith to address gender and racial disparities in recruitment, retention, and advancement.” These audits would be directed principally at institutions that have received a “substantial amount of funding over a long period of time” and would chart their progress in improving the experiences of underrepresented groups as well as evaluate the prevalence of women in leadership positions. The audits would also include statements from institutions that provide context on local factors such as geography and resource limitations. Agencies would then compile the audit results and make them publicly available on their websites.

The report also recommends that agencies explicitly consider diversity efforts by institutions and individual researchers as a part of the grant review and compliance process. In the case of NSF, these efforts would be detailed in the “broader impacts” statements included with grant applications, and for the National Institutes of Health they would be included in the “significance” section of research plans. The report notes such information should complement rather than supplant the information currently offered in these sections concerning other societal impacts of the proposed research. It also states that agencies should work to standardize the weight given to these sections of the proposal across their various funding programs.

In awarding grants, the report recommends that agencies should actively target specific disparities, for example, the underrepresentation of women at the undergraduate level in fields such as computer science, engineering, and physics, or the underrepresentation of African American women versus white women in competitions for NIH grants. It further recommends that awards be structured to support work–life integration and that agencies should not only support mentorship programs but also investigations into the impact of such sponsorship on the advancement of women into leadership roles.

In addition, the report points to a general need for “positive incentives” to promote cultural change. It recommends, for instance, that NIH and NSF collaborate to implement a “recognition program” that would encourage departments to compete to be recognized for their efforts to close gender gaps. It also calls for agencies to provide institutions with financial assistance in support of “resource-intensive data collection” needed to compete for such awards, with priority given to universities with fewer resources.

At the highest level, the report recommends the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy collaborate with NIH and NSF to produce an annual report that catalogues and evaluates science agency efforts to support the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEM fields, emphasizing those with intersectional approaches. As a model, the report cites the summary table NSF includes in its annual budget justification to Congress listing programs focused on broadening participation in STEM.

Sponsors outline agency priorities

At a symposium on the report last month, representatives from NIH and NSF described their recent diversity initiatives and offered a sense of how they may address the committees’ recommendations.

Suzi Iacono, the head of NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities, noted in her remarks that the agency has been looking deeper into demographic differences across STEM disciplines, highlighting statistics from its annual assessment of the merit review process. She noted that women and minorities have proposal success rates that are comparable or higher than their white or male colleagues, but they consistently comprise a significantly smaller fraction of the overall number of grant applicants.

Iacono said one of her main takeaways from the National Academies report is its emphasis on better addressing barriers faced by individuals with intersecting identities. She noted the agency is considering ways to address the “small N” problem, wherein privacy considerations impede demographic research on groups with a relatively small number of individuals in a given field.

“When we have static demographic data, some of the cells get so small that we are not allowed by law to actually report that data,” she said. “Many times in fields, people could say, ‘I actually know who that person would be, you know, the one African American male who is disabled, for example.’”

This dynamic leads to an “invisibility of some groups” in the data and research literature, she said, adding that NSF’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering plans to make the issue a focus of its next congressionally mandated biennial report .

Commenting on the National Academies report’s call for agencies to conduct equity audits, she said NSF is “seriously looking” at the STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change program as a potential mechanism. She noted the agency recently awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science a $1.9 million grant to support the program, which has begun a pilot project to issue formal recognition awards to higher education institutions that demonstrate a commitment to increasing diversity.

Representing NIH, the director of its Office of Research on Women’s Health, Janine Clayton, likewise emphasized the need for more research on best practices. “There are still serious gaps in our understanding of what works for whom and when, stemming from gaps in the research and the data available, especially with regards to women of color, and that makes it impossible to fully assess and appreciate where we are in terms of the effectiveness of current interventions,” she said. “We share the National Academies’ concern regarding these understudied areas and will look for ways to deploy strategies to address these gaps.”

Addressing a recommendation in the report about supporting individuals through key life junctures, she noted NIH recently created a program that provides grantees with supplemental support during “critical life events,” which includes childbirth, adoption, and other new caregiving responsibilities. She said that although the awards are open to both women and men, the program aims to “benefit women at a career stage when more women than men leave their research careers or change their career trajectory.”

NIH Director Francis Collins also spoke at the symposium about recent steps the agency has already taken, such as developing new policies to combat sexual and gender harassment. He said NIH is “deeply interested” in pursuing the practices identified in the National Academies report, though he did not offer specifics.

“Some would say that progress is already being made and we just need to let the current trends take care of these inequities because the trends are in a positive direction. But that would take decades,” Collins said, adding, “NIH is determined to do our part to produce a discontinuity in those curves of representation of women and other underrepresented groups in science.”

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