UW Today

April 27, 2011

8 percent of women physical oceanographers in tenure track, down from 23 percent – with audio clip

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Clip with LuAnne Thompson on KUOW’s “The Conversation,” last year, during program on gender discrimination at work.

The gender gap for physical oceanographers in tenure-track positions has almost doubled  since the mid-1990s.

Twenty-eight percent of the men earning physical oceanography doctorates at key U.S. institutions from 1980 to 2009 obtained tenure-track positions, while the number of female physical oceanographers obtaining such positions dropped sharply from 23 percent for the period before 1995 to only 8 percent since then, according to LuAnne Thompson, University of Washington professor of oceanography. Shes lead author of correspondence about the findings in Nature Geosciences online.

Todays tenure-track faculty numbers just dont reflect that women earned nearly 30 percent of all doctorates in physical oceanography throughout the early 2000s, Thompson says.

“People have been saying to just wait, the gender disparity will resolve itself, but it doesnt appear to be doing so,” she said.

Tenure-track positions are ones where the job holder might one day become a full professor with tenure. Instead of tenure-track jobs, a growing percentage of women PhDs in physical oceanography became instructors or research staff members, working in labs or as marine techs directed by other faculty. Thats the case for 22 percent of women since 1995, compared to 14 percent in the 15 years before that. Nine percent of male doctorate holders since 1980 are in instructor or research staff positions.

The kinds of positions obtained by women in physical oceanography has changed since the 1980s.

The kinds of positions obtained by women in physical oceanography has changed since the 1980s.U of Washington

And since 1980, nearly a quarter of woman physical oceanographers obtained research faculty positions, where positions are for fixed terms and funded primarily from research grants, compared to 19 percent of men.

The analysis in Nature Geosciences looked at six key oceanographic institutions – the UW, Oregon State University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island and University of Miami – that together award almost half of all U.S. doctorates in physical oceanography. Physical oceanographers study the physical processes that govern the circulation of the ocean, how oceans interact with the atmosphere and how such things as heat and salinity are moved around the globe. Thompson, for instance, models ocean circulation and studies its role in climate variability.

Thompson and her co-authors, Renellys Perez of the University of Miami and Amelia Shevenell of University College London, searched university, laboratory and corporate web pages to determine the jobs obtained by the 257 men and 92 women who earned their doctorates from the key U.S. institutions between 1980 and 2009. Its the first time anyone has managed to track where PhD holders in physical oceanography ended up, and it took some detective work, Thompson says.

Shown in light blue, 28 percent of the men in the sample (inner circle) obtained tenured or tenure-track positions, while the fraction of women holding these positions dropped from 23 percent (middle circle) to 8 percent (outer circle).

Shown in light blue, 28 percent of the men in the sample (inner circle) obtained tenured or tenure-track positions, while the fraction of women holding these positions dropped from 23 percent (middle circle) to 8 percent (outer circle).U of Washington

There are two ways to interpret the results, the co-authors write. Institutions may have changed hiring practices and not put as much effort into balancing the gender distribution in tenure-track positions. For instance, in states that abolished state affirmative action measures – Washington voters, for instance, approved such an initiative in 1998 – there may have been subtle institutional shifts, Thompson says.

Or its possible that women doctorate holders are making different lifestyle choices. Thompson says she encounters more graduate students these days, both male and female, whose preferences about where to live, for example, override their desire to advance in their careers. And when it comes to families, academic women typically have a spouse employed full time, and women with children are less likely to enter the tenure track than men. Its not possible to determine if this is the cause without studying doctorate holders considerations while making those decisions, Thompson says.

The impetus for checking into the jobs landed by physical oceanographers grew out of efforts by the MPOWIR, which stands for Mentoring Physical Oceanography Women to Increase Retention, and the work was partially funded by the Office of Naval Research.

In Thompsons own career, there was Office of Naval Research money available to encourage institutions to hire women physical oceanographers when she entered the workforce in 1993. She is married to a scientist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  and they have a teenaged daughter. By developing partnerships locally, she hasnt had to travel as much as some faculty, which is one way she handles her commitment to her family. This wont work for all oceanographers; her husband, for instance, travels a lot for his work.

LuAnne Thompson

LuAnne ThompsonU of Washington

“They are out there,” she says.

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For more information:
Thompson, 206-543-996; luanne@uw.edu