Plodding Progress for Women, Minorities in Science

The National Science Foundation (NSF) last week released its biennial report, , which provides a snapshot (as of 2010) of the participation of those groups which are underrepresented in science and engineering education and employment in the United States. The report, which takes its data primarily from surveys conducted by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics and is mandated by the 1980 Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act, reports no startling jumps or dips in participation in science and engineering by underrepresented minority (URM) groups, but it does show that URMs are slowly—in some cases very slowly—catching up with their white peers, except for in a couple of fields.

“The trends are very slow,” the report’s primary author, Jaquelina Falkenheim, a senior science resources analyst with the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators Program, tells Science Careers in an interview. “It’s very gradual. I wouldn’t say there’s anything radically different from 2 years ago.”

The report reveals a depressing trend for [underrepresented minorities] rising to full professorships: Their share of these positions hasn’t improved much in nearly 20 years.

A slow rise

The report finds that minority science and engineering students continue to grow in their percentage of total degrees earned: black, Hispanic, or American Indian (the groups designated as URMs) students now earn 17.5% of all bachelor’s degrees, 13% of all master’s degrees, and 7% of all doctorate degrees in the sciences and engineering. Notably, while the number of conferred minority bachelor’s and master’s degrees have continued to grow modestly but steadily since 2000, the number of doctorate degrees earned by URMs has essentially remained flat during the same time period.

Family first?

The report found that unemployment rates were higher for URMs in 2010 than they were for white men and women, with the highest rates of unemployment being among Asian women.

Why? Asian women were more likely than either white men, white women, or URMs (male or female) to cite family responsibilities. Across all races, women were significantly more likely to say that family responsibilities drew them away from work. White men were the most likely to report retirement as their reason for not working. Layoffs and “job not available” were minor but significant reasons for unemployment, especially among Asians (men and women) but also among URMs.


Blinding whiteness

There is one area where white men don’t lead the pack: At 4-year academic institutions, the group with the highest median salary 13 or 14 years after earning a Ph.D. is Asian men, who earn close to $93,000. The next highest-earning group was white men, at $83,000, followed by white women, Asian women, and URM men and women clustered around $75,000.

That’s a big change from the early-career data: One to 2 years after earning a Ph.D., Asian men are the lowest-earning group. They shoot to the top position sometime between years 3 and 4 and 5 and 6. Why? It could be a sort of survivor bias in which Asian men who stick around are very successful, while the others leave science and engineering. The data could also reflect changes over time: Perhaps Asian men are more numerous in the less experienced cohorts because their numbers have increased in the last few years, which could bring down the group’s median salary during those early years.

Interestingly—and depressingly—the trend is just the opposite for URM women: They start out as the top-earning group, but 13 or 14 years later they share the bottom position with Asian women.

Disability numbers

While retirement ranks as the primary reason for their unemployment, people with disabilities are about 35% more likely than others to report chronic illness or permanent disability as their reason for unemployment.

Slow progress

The NSF report highlights how slow and incremental the progress has been toward making the U.S. science and engineering student population and workforce reflect the country’s population. With a few exceptions, URM representation has grown in the various fields and disciplines, but the progress has been glacial. The report suggests that while efforts by research institutions and advocates are paying off, more effort and time is needed before women, minorities, and people with disabilities are fully represented in the ranks of scientists and engineers.

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