Testifying before U.S. House Subcommittee, Leshner Details Gender Gap in Science and Engineering

Alan I. Leshner; Marcia Brumit Kropf; Sandra L. Hanson, Barbara Bogue and Cherryl Thomas

Although women have made substantial gains in science and engineering fields during the past four decades, the progress has been uneven and, in some cases, ground is being lost, AAAS Chief Executive Office Alan I. Leshner told a congressional panel.

There is some encouraging news, Leshner said at a 21 July hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. At the K-through-12 level, girls have greatly increased their participation in science and mathematics, with gaps between boys and girls disappearing for such pre-college classes as chemistry, advanced algebra and pre-calculus math.

That, in turn, has affected college course selection and professional aspirations by women. In 2006, women received nearly half of the doctoral degrees in the biological sciences compared to 22% between 1973 and 1977. Women also moved from 9% of those earning M.D. degrees in 1972-73 to nearly 50% in 2007.

"Despite this kind of progress, however, some serious challenges remain," Leshner said. At K-12 levels, he said, science and math standards "are unfortunately way too low for all students, whatever their career goals, whatever their gender, and we as a country have got to do something to change that. From my perspective, that's the largest problem facing education in this country."

During the hearing on participation by women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields, Leshner reviewed how women have been faring in various disciplines and discussed AAAS programs aimed at bolstering their participation.

U.S. Representative
Daniel Lipinski

U.S. Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois), the chairman of the subcommittee, emphasized the need to bring more women into science and technology in the face of a changing global economy.

"We have heard time and time again that, as a nation, we are not producing enough scientists and engineers for the increasing number of technical jobs for the future," Lipinski said. "We need to make sure that we have the scientific and technical workforce we need if we are to remain a leader in the global economy, and it is not possible to do this without developing and encouraging all the talent of our nation."

In high schools and college, gaps continue to persist for young women in courses such as physics, calculus, and computer science, Leshner told the panel. The percentage of women in some technical fields has actually decreased over time, he said, "and that needs focused attention." In physics, women received only 20% of bachelor's degrees in 2006, and in engineering, they received 19.4% of all degrees in 2005-2006.

Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, also noted in his testimony that doctoral production for women in mathematics, geosciences, and computer science reached a plateau or started trending downward beginning in about 2000. In chemistry, despite receiving at least 30% of the doctoral degrees since the mid-1990s, "women are not appearing in significant numbers among the ranks of chemistry faculty in many of our major research institutions," Leshner said.

"The gap is real, the gap persists," he told the panel.

Marcia Brumit Kropf, chief operating officer of Girls Incorporated, formerly Girls Clubs of America, also noted that substantial gaps in participation remain despite an era of unprecedented opportunities generally for women. She said many girls continue to undervalue their skills and abilities. A 2006 study sponsored by her organization found that 44% of the girls in grades 3 through 12 who were surveyed agreed with the statement that "the smartest girls in my school are not popular." In addition, 36% of the girls surveyed agreed that "people think girls are not interested in computers and technology" and 17% thought it was true that "teachers think it is not important for girls to be good at math."

Sandra L. Hanson, a professor of sociology at Catholic University who has studied gender and education, said girls and boys start out with equal interest and abilities in science. But as early as the second grade that can start to change, she said. One study found that when second grade boys and girls draw a scientist, most draw a white male in a lab coat. When they draw women scientists, they tend to look severe and unhappy, Hanson said. Research suggests that by eighth grade, boys report twice as much interest in STEM careers as girls.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) report on common myths about girls and science (based on NSF-funded research findings) discounts the view that teachers no longer are biased in favor of boys in science classes. "A teacher will often help a boy do an experiment by explaining how to do it, while when a girl asks for assistance, the teacher will often simply do the experiment, leaving the girl to watch rather than do," the paper says.

Still, Hanson said she has seen a high level of interest in science among young girls in her studies, including among minority groups, and she is quite optimistic for the future. She cited resources that can help improve performance, including ongoing support of research and programs on girls in STEM fields by the NSF and other organizations. Hanson said there are practices that do have impact, including smaller classes, more work in groups, more hands-on experiences, more gender and race diversity in science teachers and curricula, and more access to mentoring and networking for female students.

Even when women do attain science degrees, Leshner said, there can be problems. "Many leave the scientific workforce because of the lack of career opportunities that enable them to do a better job balancing having a career and life outside the laboratory," he said.

Fortunately, there have been recent changes in the culture in some institutions, with more willingness to accommodate the demands of work and personal lives of both women and men in STEM fields, Leshner said. He noted that NSF, through its ADVANCE program, has been funding efforts by schools to make structural changes in work environments to help encourage more participation by women.

In his prepared remarks, Leshner cited some examples of schools that are making a difference, including Morgan State University, where women received more than 42% of STEM bachelor's degrees in 2007; Carnegie Mellon University, which has boosted the percentage of women in the entering group of computer science majors from 7% to 40% between 1995 and 2001; and Purdue University's chemistry department, which has 15 women on the faculty, or 27% of the total. (For the top 50 research universities, women account for just 16% of the chemistry faculties).

Leshner told the panel about several programs AAAS has undertaken to address gender equity in STEM fields, including career development activities coordinated by the AAAS Center on Careers in Science and Technology. AAAS produces materials that feature young and established women in STEM careers, telling stories about their lives in science and beyond. In addition, the AAAS Center on Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity assists universities seeking to diversify and expand their STEM faculties.

"We also try to provide role models as well," Leshner said. AAAS, which elected its first woman president in 1970--Mina Rees, a mathematician-- seeks to address the gender equity issue in its own mission statement and governance as well as through its outreach programs. Leshner noted that more than 50% of the AAAS senior staff members are women.

Leshner urged the federal government to gather better data and statistics for measuring retention of students in STEM fields and providing a better understanding of the most effective practices to recruit and retain women in those fields.

Barbara Bogue, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics and women in engineering at Pennsylvania State University--speaking for the Society of Women Engineers--also called for better assessment of what works and what does not. She urged continuation of federal Title IX reviews to ensure that women are allowed full participation in engineering and other STEM disciplines at the college level.

"Sustained and targeted funding is necessary--funding for basic research, funding to design and implement programs, and funding to support individuals," Bogue said."

There was general agreement on the importance of role models in helping to interest girls in STEM fields. The panel heard from one woman who fits the bill. Cherryl Thomas, the African-American president of a Chicago engineering firm called Ardmore Associates, told of her rise through the male-dominated ranks of the Chicago Department of Water and Sewers.

With a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology, Thomas started at the department as a research chemist and, at the urging of the chief engineer, took engineering courses that prepared her to lead one of the department's field crews. It was daunting at first but, she said, "you have to be able to step outside of your comfort zone." Thomas held various technical and management positions before Mayor Richard M. Daley tapped her to be his deputy chief of staff and, in 1994, appointed her as the first woman to be commissioner of the Department of Buildings.

What spurred Thomas' interest in engineering? She recalled her fascination as a child with her older brother's Tinker Toy construction set. Though he told her to keep her "sticky paws" off of it, she got up in the middle of the night to play with it.

"The first thing I built was a windmill," Thomas said. "All these years later when I see the wind turbines dotting the landscape in rural areas, I have to wonder how many of the engineers who have designed or built wind turbines had their interests sparked, in their youth, by a simple set of Tinker Toys."

U.S. Representative
Vernon Ehlers

Whatever the motivation, U.S. Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), a member of the subcommittee and a nuclear physicist, said it will be essential for young girls to develop similar enthusiasms and embrace the study of math and science.

"The jobs of the future are going to require of the workers a basic understanding of the fundamental principles of mathematics and science," Ehlers said. "If we do not in some way persuade" girls to study such subjects in elementary and secondary school, he said, they are "automatically cutting themselves out of a great many job opportunities."