Women Are, or Are Not, Doing Science, And Should Be Encouraged

So, here's the latest set of reports telling you exactly what the situation is for women in science, nicely collected for us in the AWIS Sept. 1, 2006 Washington Wire (thanks, AWIS!) FYI: STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. What follows are the titles of three reports, AWIS's summary, and then my summary.

Rapid Increase in STEM Occupations in the Last Half-Century

A new study published by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) shows that the growth in American STEM occupations between 1950 and 2000 outpaced the growth of the total labor force during the same time period. In 2000, STEM workers constituted 5% of the total American workforce and while the representation of women in STEM has increased from 8% in 1950 to 26% in 2000, they are still under-represented relative to their engagement in the total workforce (47%). Minorities too remain under-represented in STEM disciplines. The nearly eight-fold expansion of the U.S. STEM workforce has been a driving force behind U.S. productivity, but the diversity of the labor force is important to consider. The report can be found here.

The percentage of women in STEM occupations has increased! Yet they are still underrepresented! As are minorities! Diversity is important! I had not known these things.

Still, I suppose, there are cretins too numerous to count all over the U.S. who either actually DON'T know these things, or believe that there are no underrepresented groups in STEM. Everybody who ought to be there is already there. So, reports like this do come in handy when dealing with such cretins, who may be your department head, dean, provost, or university president. Or even your resident Nobel Prize winner at, say, a prestigious private technical university.

Women Turning Away from Math, Science Fields

Researchers at RTI International, the University of Minnesota, University of Michigan and Murdoch University show that due to concerns about balancing career and family, many young women don't enter male-dominated fields. The study, published in the August issue of Educational Research and Evaluation Journal followed female high school seniors from 1990 who aspired to male-dominated careers. Seven years later, 83% of these women had switched to female-dominated or neutral careers. Women are not only less likely to choose careers in male-dominated fields such as science, but those who do enter are more likely than men to drop out. The study shows that the key predictor of whether women will tend to leave a particular field is lack of flexibility. The researchers suggest that it is not enough to encourage girls to take math and science courses; they need women who have successfully pursued these careers while having a family as role models. The researchers also recommend implementing programs that address girl's lack of confidence in their scientific ability and classes to teach boys to take on an equal share of family duties. The full study can be found here . [Addendum: apparently you need a subscription to read this.]

Well....I am sure these folks did their study very carefully. But young women are perfectly happy to sign up for careers in medicine, law, and business, which are exceedingly demanding of time ,and cause difficulties in balancing career and family. I'm kinda thinkin' it isn't just flexibility that is the issue with science and engineering. Or marketing, which has also been suggested as the issue. "Girls just don't know enough about our fabulous science and engineering careers! If we told them all about it, they would just love to come here! They need more role models! More self-confidence! There's just something sort of...off about the girls that needs tweaking and if we can fix it...make them confident...teach them how to balance career and family...because of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the culture of science and engineering...nothing over here that needs changing...we are perfect in every way and if the girls knew that they'd understand how great we are...in fact we are so perfect we don't really need to try very hard to get the girls to join us, if they are good enough and want to do science bad enough, and they can cut the mustard, they'll show up. Dude, have you seen my hot Screen Goddess IT calendar? Why can't we get some hot babes like that instead of the dogs who always apply here? Now there would be a reason to have some women in science! "

Women in Academic Science and Engineering: A Guide to Maximizing Their Potential

The National Academies, under the oversight of the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), has developed a report, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The study committee, chaired by Donna Shalala, President of the University of Miami, has developed findings and recommendations for recruiting, hiring, promoting, and retaining women scientists and engineers in academe. The report provides specific action points for faculty, department chairs and deans, academic leaders, funding organizations, higher education organizations, scientific and professional societies, journals, and government officials. A description of the NAS study can be found here.

Read the report, dammit. That means you, department chairs, deans, provosts, university presidents, and Nobel Prize winners at prestigious private technical universities who think you can accept federal funding for your fancy genetic research laboratories and then just abandon your obligations to train and mentor graduate students and posdoctoral researchers if you don't like who they are because you are getting old and are afraid of competition. You are supposed to be an ACADEMIC LEADER and mentor the stars of tomorrow, not hoard your power like some freakish old miser who thinks there can only be one lonely scientific king at the top of a pyramid, in charge of all the knowledge and equipment and resources. Bastard. Not that I'm picking on anyone in particular. Because there are lots and lots of you out there. You don't have to win a Nobel Prize to be an arrogant, competitive, back-stabbing weasel.

With apologies to the weasels of the animal kindgdom for tarnishing their good name.


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Thanks for the summaries. I get the washington wire but lately have been too snowed under to follow the links. Thanks for doing the hard work for me.

Zuska, love your blog! (And I've got an essay in She's Such a Geek, too).

I'm so tired of the official party line about why there are so few women in science myself (speaking as one who ran screaming from physics after miserable years of graduate school). I was never sexually harassed, but I did feel that I didn't set myself up well for the kind of physics career I wanted or the life I wanted as a result of a couple of unfortunate graduate project choices. Examining my own mixed feelings about whether or not to encourage girls to go into STEM careers has opened my eyes up to a lot of factors I wasn't aware of before, such as the privilege that males in these careers enjoy. I believe that's part of the reason why my advisor couldn't understand why I took the failure of my first project so hard.

I'd really like to be able to make girls aware of the rewards and the realities of STEM careers through fiction. The fact is that in STEM careers it's really still luck of the draw as to whether you'll be in a supportive environment or not to a much larger degree than in the mainstream business environment which can't get away with flouting laws.

And it's not even always a question of obvious discrimination. A good friend of mine feels that her boss wasn't trusting her to take on responsibilities at her engineering company that she knew that she was well capable of. She suspects that it might be because she has a direct communication style, which some people find to be less acceptable in women than in men, even though engineers are supposed to like directness, right? That may or may not be the cause of the friction between them, but the presence of more overt forms of sexism in STEM fields means that you do wonder.

I skimmed the report and it starts off with a story about how a particular women was discriminated against when going for her Phd in the late 60s. As someone who went to school in the mid 70s I'd like to remind those with conveniently short memories or who are too young to know that the women's movement made great strides in those days in getting preferential treatment for women in terms of quotas for women in many fields. In the early 80s this was particularly true in science and engineering. I'm a physicist and with my help and encouragement my wife decided to change from an English major to an Engineering major. It was a bit of a struggle since she was competing against men who spent their childhood building electronics kits while she had no interest in such things until she had been in college for a year. She saw it though and was immediately given a coveted high paying job with a large aerospace firm. An aerospace firm under great government pressure to be inclusive of minorites. I was in the same firm and was proud and pleased to see her accelerated past the men who were hired with her (and who had much higher GPAs), into positions of scientific and engineering responsibilty. When it came time for her to go to grad school, she did not have the required undergraduate GPA. This was not a problem, as when she talked to the graduate office she was told that it would be no problem getting her in because she was a woman. In fact she was told by the office assistant that if her mother or sister would like to apply they could get them in as well. After a long stuggle she got her masters degree. She was immediately rewarded at work with a promotion.

Meanwhile, I was a teaching assistant in physics at another college. We were informed that minority students WOULD NOT BE FAILED. I agreed with this concept, and worked extra hard to help blacks and women students. As there were few women grad students, they were especially encouraged and generally given the best jobs in the labs. They also had an advantage in finding summer jobs at the national labs. The professors were not only more supportive of "minorities" than they were of men, most were of left wing opinion and were genuinely trying to make their departments more representive. This has been my experience at 3 large universities where I've studied and taught.

Unfortunately, the qualifying exam required the actual working of problems and depth of knowledge. There was no extra points for genetic makeup or special grading of the tests based on which representives of a particular political power block needed to pass. Of the 30 people I entered with, including 3 women, only 4 ended up with a PhD, none of them women. I suspect this is the actual "discrimination in science" which is being considered here. Given all the political firepower I see being assembled lately, I suspect this aspect will soon be changing.

In later years, my wife and I worked in various technical jobs associated with the electronics and aerospace industry. Until the late 90s, technical women were given priority treatment in promotions and assignments. Then they were accelerated into management positions when the disparity there was being addressed. My wife openly acknowledges that she's been given perferential treatment in school and work at all levels, and we think of it in terms of "gaming the system" since it's more than doubled our earnings over the years.

That doesn't change the fact that there has been enormous discrimination at all levels in science and technology in this country over the last quarter century. Discrimination against men mainly. If there were "Men's Studies" departments at every major university, I'm sure we'd be seeing many books on the subject. Myself, I've seen it in person, close up, endemic in industry and academia. I was a willing part of it for reasons I felt were good and true. Yet in spite of all the encouragement, quotas and set asides, women remain vastly underrepresented in science and technology.

My experience, which is considerable in industry and academia is that anyone who thinks women are discriminated against by said institutions are self deceived fools. I welcome women into the technical world and stand firm against ALL forms of discriminatin. Even those designed to pay perks to political power blocks.

Bummer! Too bad I was born too late to benefit from any of that positive discrimination favoring women! A lot of that was over by the time I graduated from college in 1990.

Did you consider the possibility that maybe many of the women had better managerial skills? That might have been a better role for those who weren't absolute technical geeks.

I don't think we should trust very much the perceptions of a man who who was "proud and pleased" to see his wife, his deserving protege, advance due to such blatant nonsensical preference.

Probably, most of us are victims rather than beneficiaries of those "gaming the system".