Bridging the Gender Gap in STEM

Introduction. The battle to bridge the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has been a hot topic for several years. Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 per- cent of STEM jobs (see Figure1). This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college- educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce. This issue is worse in computer-related fields and technology, “By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs in computing-related fields—but women are on track to fill only 3 percent of them.”

Reasons. Some people such as Stuart Reges, a principal lecturer at the university’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, argue that main reason for this gap are the fundamental differences between men and woman and the consequent choice. “Our community must face the difficult truth that we aren’t likely to make further progress in attracting women to computer science. Women can code, but often they don’t want to. We will never reach gender parity.” wrote Reges. “It’s time for everyone to be honest, and my honest view is that having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve. Accepting that idea doesn’t mean that women should feel unwelcome. Recognizing that women will be in the minority makes me even more appreciative of the women who choose to join us.”

On the other hand, there are many evidences showing that women are achieving the same level of excellence in science fields as men. For example, last year for the first time women outnumbered men in medical school enrollments, which were men-dominated before. Furthermore, while Reges interprets the national data correctly that women fall behind men in computer science enrollments, his assertion that sexism in the tech industry is not an obstacle for women who are competent to enter the industry is questionable.

Author’s Opinion. I believe that thriving in computer science is regardless of the gender. If you are interested in this field, go for it! Similar to any other purpose in your life, it is hard to reach to the summit of success especially when the route is full of crumbling rocks and you are not fairly treated. However, summit worth fighting for!

As one of the successful role models in Computer Science, Grace Hopper was a United States Navy rear admiral and also a female pioneer of computer programming who invented one of the first compiler related tools. Nowadays, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists with around 20,000 attendees this year in Houston, TX. Here is a famous quote from her: A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

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Research Misconduct in Higher Education

I would like to start with defining the three “cardinal sins” of research conduct: falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism  (resource: Link):

  • Falsification is the changing or omission of research results (data) to support claims, hypotheses, other data, etc.
  • Fabrication is the construction and/or addition of data, observations, or characterizations that never occurred in the gathering of data or running of experiments.
  • Plagiarism is using or representing the work of others as your own work, even if committed unintentionally.

Following is the case summary of a research misconduct done by Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (resource: Link).  The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) found that Ms. Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub, Research Interviewer at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC), was engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant U01 DE019765-01. ORI found that Respondent engaged in research misconduct by intentionally and knowingly falsifying and/or fabricating data that were included in the following two (2) published papers and two (2) grant progress reports submitted to NIDCR and NIH. As the result, Dr. Elqutub agreed to have her research supervised for a period of three (3) years, and exclude herself voluntarily from serving in any advisory capacity to the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS).

Author’s Opinion: While there are quite few number of research misconduct reports on ORI scholarly integrity website, I believe there should be more of them based on the increasing number of publications around the world. Therefore, I did some research on this topic and found a great paper titled “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data” by Daniele Fanelli. The paper argues how difficult it is to measure the frequency with which scientists fabricate and falsify data, or commit other forms of scientific misconduct. With some assumptions on around 20 surveys, a pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once. The good news is that recently some statistical tools have been introduced to detect potential data fabrication automatically (resource: Link). From my point of view, such tools can have a key role to stop research misconduct in the future.

How IMPOSSIBLE is it to become a tenure assistant professor?

Imagine you are a Ph.D. student, passionate about teaching and doing research. Most likely, the dream job for you is becoming an assistant professor in a research university. However, you may want to take a closer look at this process and then judge whether or not it is what you really dream about.

Recently, I read three related articles on The Chronicle Higher Education: “How Hard Is It to Get Tenure?”, “What Is the Going Rate for Tenure Nowadays?”  and “So You Think You Want a Tenure-Track Job?”. It was indicated how tricky it is to prepare the application material and modify it based on the institution and filed, with a focus on your arc of productivity forward toward tenure. Applicants must be clear on the contractual percentage of research, teaching and service that will be expected to meet for tenure. Note that getting tenure might be more challenging for minorities, such as women or people of color. Best case scenario, your quest for tenure if finally approved and you will be hired as a tenure-track. But is it the end of story? Absolutely not!

Junior faculty members receive a start-up funding to set up labs and hire graduate students. They are supposed to bring in at least one substantial grant from a federal agency, such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, in order to get tenure. Given the increasing number of applications for a decreasing pool of federal research dollars, it is highly competitive to get funding, i.e. the odds of getting a typical federal grant  in a major like population and community ecology is 5%. As such, many competitive research projects and proposal are rejected every year, resulting in many new assistant professors who are not awarded tenure-track while they have amazing publications.

Meanwhile the tenure-track period, junior faculties are implicitly forced to write proposal which have better chances to be funded. This might be interpreted as the loss of writing freedom in many cases. Moreover, it is undeniable that the salary is significantly lower than industry and national labs. Altogether, here is the big question that one should ask in the beginning of this journey full of ups and downs:  is becoming a tenure assistant professor worth spending this time and energy?