How the global character of higher education has given women a leg up in STEM fields.
International collaborations and the mobility of academics that makes such collaborations possible are both more important but also more politically charged today than they have been in recent years. The Trump administration has unveiled a new executive order banning immigration from six Muslim-majority countries after his initial order, which threatened the movement of students, researchers, and professors (among many others) from the targeted countries, was blocked by the judiciary. Meanwhile, university lawyers have advised members of the academic community already in the United States to postpone any travel outside of the states; and travel outside the country for all foreign nationals is now considered a risk. Researchers at U.S. universities have already expressed fear that they will not be able to continue their research abroad.
The premier reputation boasted by U.S. universities (particularly in science and technology fields) has been precisely because U.S. academia has been open to the world.
These developments are causing great concern in the academic community as the premier reputation boasted by U.S. universities (particularly in science and technology fields) has been precisely because U.S. academia has been open to the world. This openness attracts top talent and extends research collaborations across the globe. Immigrants have long been crucial to making U.S. science “great,” including Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany and escaped the Holocaust. Without immigrants, the United States would have won nearly one-third fewer Nobel prizes and not a single one in 2016 when all six winners were immigrants. Much less discussed, however, is the adverse impact closing national borders may have on the academic careers of women in particular, whose successes in academia have long been shaped and bolstered by having access to international opportunities.
Some women have left their countries of origin to study abroad or engage in international collaborations, in some instances simply because they have had the privilege to do so, in other cases out of sheer necessity. International opportunities enable some women to build their academic careers by circumventing exclusionary systems of higher education they may face at home. For these women, foreclosing access to these international opportunities by restricting travel could pose a significant hurdle for their careers—as well as to the advancement of knowledge, in general. In protest of the travel ban, international colleagues have threatened to boycott international academic conferences scheduled to take place in the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. universities have filed amici briefs in courts explaining how the ban would damage them as they depend on students and academics from abroad—indeed, one-third of professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (commonly abbreviated as STEM) are immigrants.
And it is not only women from abroad who benefit from international collaborations—women academics in the United States depend on open access to international opportunities as well, and have for years. For example, in the nineteenth century, U.S. women received doctoral degrees from German universities and then founded women’s colleges upon their return to the United States. At that time, American colleges and universities did not admit women, nor were German women able to study at German universities. As foreigners, however, U.S. women had access to German universities because they were expected to “go home” and not to claim academic positions in Germany. Universities therefore did not perceive them as a threat to their gender order. Yet the women’s presence inspired German women to demand admission to universities.
Little discussed is the adverse impact closing national borders may have on the academic careers of women in particular, whose successes in academia have long been shaped and bolstered by having access to international opportunities.
Today, academic careers continue to be shaped by international opportunities. Women professors in STEM fields in the United States benefit from going abroad and getting involved in high-caliber research collaborations in top research institutions they might not have access to in the United States. Successful, high-impact research, particularly in STEM fields, is typically conducted in large, internationally diverse teams such as these. According to the National Science Foundation, one-third of science and engineering articles published by U.S. scientists in 2013 were co-authored with partners outside the United States. Some senior women who I interviewed for my research remarked that they felt their international reputation was much greater than their reputation at home. U.S. women abroad can benefit from what I call the .edu bonus, which helps women gain access to academic circles abroad. The .edu email and internet address signals their affiliation with U.S. institutions of higher education, and the status of U.S. science and academia rubs off on these scholars. The women I interviewed told me that they felt that their international colleagues considered them highly respected, valued collaboration partners.
This is important because there are still widely held beliefs the world over that women are less competent than men in mathematics and logic, considered the foundations of many STEM fields. With the .edu bonus, however, women are seen as American scientists rather than as women. Thus, international opportunities can open doors for U.S. women abroad that can be crucial to advance their research, publish in higher quality journals, and get more citations.
International Women’s Day offers a good opportunity to consider what it takes to create the more inclusive global world of academia we need to solve urgent global problems. The .edu bonus exists because of inequalities in global academia and because the United States is seen as the leader in science and academia. This bonus creates privileges for U.S. academics. But the flip side is that anyone who is not trained at or affiliated with U.S. institutions suffers from an .edu penalty. U.S. academics and academic institutions need to pay attention to gender equality not only on their own campuses but also in their recruitment from abroad. A U.S. degree or research experience and collaboration with U.S. universities can be crucial for women’s career prospects, either back home or in a third country when they lack employment options at home.
Keeping doors open to U.S. institutions and opening them even wider to women from outside the United States—by extending equal opportunities to women students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting professors, and so on—will advance gender equality on the global stage. Despite increased opportunities to collaborate virtually, building relationships and trust still happens face-to-face, which is why academic mobility is so important. Not surprisingly, internationally co-authored work often occurs between professors and their former graduate students or postdocs who went abroad, or with colleagues with whom they had previously spent time at an institution. These mobile international students and colleagues can also create crucial opportunities for women faculty in the United States to build long-lasting collaborations that have the potential to advance their research.
Because academia is so interconnected globally, integrating women and individuals from minority groups into STEM is not separate from the process of globalization of science and higher education. We need the worldwide community of academics to tackle issues of gender, science, and academia across national borders. The United States can and should use its (still) powerful position in academia by working with other nations in creating an inclusive, innovative, and productive world of science and academia.