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Gender barriers: New book looks at roadblocks impeding women scientists and engineers

Georgia Institute of Technology Research News

Sue V. Rosser.
Photographed by Stanley Leary.

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Whether they're at large research institutions or small liberal arts colleges, balancing work and family remains the top challenge for women scientists and engineers in academia, reports Sue V. Rosser, dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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 will inform Rosser's discussion February 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The presentation will be 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 says, 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), a 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 says. "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.

Family issues loom large because many women scientists and engineers postpone children, Rosser observes: "By the time a woman completes her doctoral degree and post-doc work, she is typically in her early thirties -- an age where there is competition between the tenure clock and the biological clock."

Dual careers further complicate family and work tensions. This is especially true when both spouses are scientists, says Rosser, noting that 62 percent of women faculty in the sciences and engineering are married to a scientist or engineer who also faces heavy workloads.

Because POWRE awards typically go to women at large research universities, Rosser was curious if similar problems existed at small liberal arts colleges, which had a reputation for being more "family friendly."

With that in mind, Rosser surveyed winners of Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) Professorships, a program that provides funding primarily to assistant professors in engineering, science and mathematics at liberal arts colleges.

Seventy-five percent of CBL respondents cited "balancing family and work" as their No. 1 problem, corroborating the results of the POWRE surveys. According to one CBL award winner:

"A practical reality of biochemistry is that, to be highly successful, the scientist must inevitably spend long hours in the lab. This is particularly difficult for women who are trying to juggle small children with work."

The notion that small, private colleges provide more time and less pressure for women faculty than large research institutions was an illusion, Rosser discovered. "The pressures are just different," she says.

For example, faculty at small colleges shoulder higher teaching loads than do faculty at large research institutions where graduate and post-doc students are available to help teach labs and lecture courses. There's also more pressure for faculty at smaller schools to attend ceremonies and events like parents' weekend, which results in even less time for writing grants and publishing research results - activities that help advance careers.

A smaller school can become a trap, especially for women who are interested in research, Rosser says: "In the short run, it might be a little easier to integrate their personal life with work, but in the long run they become disconnected from their research."

Rosser's book sheds light on specific issues that institutions must address to attract and retain women scientists and engineers. "Because the problem is systemic, solutions will vary from school to school," Rosser says.

One encouraging initiative is NSF's ADVANCE program, which replaced POWRE in 2001. Rather than providing money to individuals, ADVANCE funds institutions to develop model policies and practices that will break down barriers faced by women faculty.

Georgia Tech has received a $3.7 million award from ADVANCE, and Rosser is a co-principal investigator to help administer those funds. Strategies being developed at Georgia Tech include:

  • Family-friendly policies such as "stopping the tenure clock," which means the time a woman is on maternity leave doesn't count toward the tenure-track probationary period.
  • A formal tenure and promotion training process to remove even subtle gender and racial biases.
  • A mentoring network, which is being established by four senior women faculty members named to ADVANCE professorships.
  • Retreats that give tenure-track women faculty access to upper-level administrators.

Educating male colleagues and supervisors is also critical. "Even though the tenure clock may have been officially stopped, it doesn't always stop in the minds of colleagues," Rosser points out.

Institutional policies that increase the satisfaction and success of women faculty in science and technology will achieve far-reaching results, Rosser says: "Such positive changes should have a ripple effect on women graduate and undergraduate students as they consider the wisdom of choosing a career in academia."


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