National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2020 Addressing the underrepresentation of women

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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2020) Promising practices for addressing the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and medicine: opening doors. The National Academies Press, Washington DC

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National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2020) The National Academies Press, Washington DC

Abstract: Careers in science, engineering, technology, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) offer opportunities to advance knowledge, contribute to the well-being of communities, and support the security, prosperity, and health of the United States. Many women, however, do not pursue or persist in these careers or advance to leadership positions. The bulk of evidence indicates that underrepresentation of women in STEMM—including at leadership levels—is driven by a wide range of structural, cultural, and institutional patterns of bias, discrimination, and inequity that do not affect men of comparable ability and training. To date, there have been seven National Academies reports published over the past two decades that have addressed causes and consequences of the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and medicine. Among those consequences are:

(1) A national labor shortage in many science, engineering, and medical professions, particularly in technical fields, that cannot be filled unless institutions and organizations recruit from a broad and diverse talent pool.

(2) Lost opportunities for innovation and economic gain, particularly since research shows that more diverse teams generate more innovative solutions to problems, publish higher impact articles, and raise a company’s bottom line. In other words, there are opportunity costs to perpetuating a scientific workforce that lacks diversity.

(3) Lost talent as a result of discrimination, unconscious bias, and sexual harassment, which often prevents women from pursuing careers in science, engineering, and medicine.

In this report, which is based on an analysis of current research, the committee provides a range of stakeholders with actionable recommendations on how to take coordinated action to drive necessary changes to the system of science, engineering, and medical education, research, and employment. The committee’s recommendations are not aimed at “fixing the women,” but instead focus on changing the culture through systemic actions. To do so will require the men and women in Congress, the White House, federal funding agencies (particularly the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation), colleges and universities, and professional societies to approach this issue armed with a heightened sense of urgency and an evidence-based strategy for action. This report aims to provide both.

Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E


Conclusion 1: Although the absolute number of women earning degrees across science, engineering, and medical fields has increased in recent years, women—especially women of color—are underrepresented relative to their presence in the workforce and the U.S. population. National patterns of underrepresentation vary by career stage, race and ethnicity, and discipline.
Conclusion 2: Bias, discrimination, and harassment are major drivers of the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and medicine; they are often experienced more overtly and intensely by women of intersecting identities (e.g., women of color, women with disabilities, LGBTQIA women; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual).
Conclusion 3: While some institutions have seen improvements in the representation of women in science, engineering, and medical education and careers, national patterns of underrepresentation are still prevalent at most institutions, especially for women of color.
Conclusion 4: There are numerous effective, evidence-based strategies and practices that institutions can adopt to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of White women across a broad range of scientific, engineering, and medical disciplines and multiple stages of the educational and career pathway. However, additional investigation is needed specifically to understand how to support more effectively the participation of women of color and women of other intersecting identities in science, engineering, and medicine.
Conclusion 5: Improving recruitment and retention of women in STEMM throughout their education and training is important, particularly in mathematics-intensive fields such as computer science and engineering. Educational strategies that challenge stereotypes about the essential attributes of a successful STEMM professional and about the nature of work in STEMM can increase interest, improve performance, and instill a sense of belonging in these fields among White women, women of color, and other underrepresented groups (e.g., first-generation college students and men of color).
Conclusion 6: Both research literature and the findings of focus groups that were carried out by the independent nonprofit research institute RTI International on behalf of this study point to a common set of conditions that support institutional adoption of practices to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women, including:
  • Committed leadership at all levels, especially from those in positions of authority (such as policy makers, college and university presidents and deans, and individual faculty that manage training programs and large laboratories) who can implement, allocate resources toward, and monitor progress on new policies and strategies that close the gender gap.
  • Dedicated financial and human resources—including new or re-directed funds and appropriately compensated individuals in positions of power and authority whose work is dedicated toward opening doors to opportunity and success for women.
  • Accountability and data collection—especially when used as a tool to inform and incentivize progress.
  • Adoption of an intersectional approach that explicitly and concretely addresses the challenges faced by women of color and other groups who encounter multiple, cumulative forms of bias and discrimination.


  1. Driving transparency and accountability. Institutions must articulate and deliver on measurable goals and benchmarks that are regularly monitored and publicly reported. Multiple studies have demonstrated that transparency and accountability can drive behavior change.
  2. Adopting data-driven approaches to address underrepresentation of women in STEMM. The committee recommends a targeted data-driven approach to closing the gender gap in science, engineering, and medicine. Such an approach includes, for example, dissecting the barriers by discipline and career stage, recognizing explicitly that interventions and strategies that generally work well for White women may not work well for women of color and, in addition, using disaggregated data collection, analysis, and monitoring as the basis for constructing specific interventions within the unique context of each institution.
  3. Rewarding, recognizing, and resourcing equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts. Equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts by institutions are often hindered by a lack of sufficient resources and by the expectation that individuals, particularly women and people of color, who are most affected by these issues, will assume a leadership role in promoting positive change without appropriate compensation, authority, or promise of reward or recognition.
  4. Filling knowledge gaps. Although scholarly research on gender disparities in science, engineering, and medicine has yielded an abundance of information that can be applied toward reaching gender equity, there are critical knowledge gaps that require closer attention.
  • Leaders in academia and scientific societies should put policies and practices in place to prioritize, reward, recognize, and resource equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts appropriately.

Labels: MiParea: Gender 

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