Women who apply for tenure-track positions at top-tier research universities in math and sciences these days have a slightly better chance of landing the job than their male colleagues, says a new study funded by the National Science Foundation.

But that's just for those who apply, which is a good tick lower than those who earn PhDs. In chemistry, for example, women made up 32 percent of newly minted PhDs from 1999 to 2003 but accounted for only 18 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions.

The recent report, commissioned by Congress, surveyed 89 institutions and examined PhD and faculty gender distribution in biology, chemistry, civil engineering, electrical engineering, math and physics.

Despite being a minority of math and science faculty overall, the number of women in the academic ranks is on the rise. For example, in 1995, women made up 18.7 percent of assistant math professors and 7.6 percent of the full professors. By 2003, those numbers had increased modestly to 26.5 percent of assistant math professors and 9.7 percent of full professors.

The results also revealed that tenured female professors earned about 8 percent less than male colleagues. "There are still big problems facing women in the science, technology and engineering fields," says Phoebe Leboy, president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and a biochemistry professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania. Many women get a close look at the academic prospects ahead and say, "This job is not designed for me," Leboy says.

So what are they doing instead? The government study doesn't include definitive answers about whether women are dropping out of academia altogether or being held back the assistant professor level, says Sally Shaywitz, co-chair of the report committee and a professor of learning development and co-director of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale. "It's a snapshot—it’s not a dynamic, longitudinal study," she says.

But drawing on AWIS research, Leboy notes that many women who earned science PhDs have ended up outside the ivory tower. Less than 1 percent were out of work entirely, she said, many having gone into industry jobs or work outside the lab as writers, editors or in public relations.

With long hours, tight funding and pressure to publish, an academic job may be a less appealing choice today for many doctoral grads, regardless of gender. As Shaywitz points out, today's graduates are spending much longer in intensive post-doc positions, and often taking on a second or third program, which can push original, funded research off into middle age. She recommends universities allow—and encourage—faster progress through the ranks.

There are a handful of other things schools can do to boost the number of women in science and math professorships, Shaywitz says. Current recruiting strategies don't seem to be working, but chairing a search committee with a female faculty member is a simple step that often fills open jobs with women. And once women land the jobs, they often enjoy greater success, especially in receiving grants, if they have a mentor.

Change also needs to happen on a more intangible level, says Shaywitz. "A woman who is thinking of starting a family shouldn't be seen as a weakness," she says, and recommends universities institute more family-friendly policies to bolster a shift in historic values.

Leboy agrees that, "we have to change the culture of academic science." Having more women in leadership positions on science faculty could also speed up the cycle, creating role models for girls and younger women. Otherwise, she notes, we're in danger of "losing the perspective that women can bring to scientific problems."