|Congress Considers Women in Science
With the high technology labor shortage of concern (and in dispute), the issue of women in science is gaining more attention. Women could contribute significantly in addressing this shortage, particularly since women make up only 22 percent of the entire science and engineering workforce, reports the National Science Foundation’s 1996 study, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. “We must determine how to attract the best from both genders,” Mankato State Computer Sciences Professor Ann M. Quade said in a March 10 hearing held by the Subcommittee on Technology.
Businesses owned by women are the fastest-growing sector in American business today, indicate studies conducted by IBM. Women comprise almost half of all law school graduates, according to the American Bar Association. And the American Medical Association reports that women make up more than 40 percent of medical school students. Women even make up almost 50 percent of the graduate students in the biological sciences. Yet the percentage of women Ph.D.s in engineering is a mere 12 percent, finds the American Association of Engineering Societies. And only 9 percent of physicists are women, according to NSF. Clearly, there are differences not only between the social sciences and “hard” sciences, but among the life and physical sciences as well.
Women have difficulties with self-esteem and gender discrimination. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reports that girls receive less attention than boys throughout their educational experience. Teachers teach like they have been taught, not like they have been taught to teach. And because most elementary school teachers are women, the cycle is tough to break. During the March 10 hearing, several Members of Congress shared examples of their own daughters discouraged from taking advanced math and science classes, or intentionally staying away from the fields because of loss of self-esteem.
Girls need exposure to different career opportunities. Exemplifying the need for career awareness, one Member asked Professor Quade, “What do math and computer science majors do?” Women lack mentors and role models. The AAUW also has found that curriculum materials often ignore the contributions of women. At a March 4 House Committee on Science hearing, Bill Nye, star of public television’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” explained how his show goes out of its way to include women and minorities. He cited research in which girls have been shown to be ten times more interested in the subject material when they see other girls or women. Mr. Nye believes role models are a vital part of addressing the dearth of women in science. While it is good news that more women are in leadership positions in the scientific community than ever before, Rep. Morella has termed the upward mobility challenge to women in technological fields the “silicon ceiling.”
Further difficulties are experienced by women in balancing family and career responsibilities. Women worry that is unrealistic to have children and successful careers as research scientists. Experiments take time to set-up, conduct, and analyze. Sometimes there are limited windows in which data can be collected and organisms and other supplies are available. It is often difficult to predict how long an experiment will take or possible set-backs that might occur. Situations ranging from having to pick-up children from the babysitter, being able to watch swim meets, and taking family vacations are challenging, though not unusual. Catherine Jay Didion, Executive Director of the Association for Women in Science, advocates more career flexibility and supportive work environments for both men and women seeking to balance family and career.
The March 10 hearing also assessed the role of the federal government in promoting women in scientific fields. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) suggested that language in the NIH reauthorization might encourage the agency to put women “out where they can be seen and heard.” There was concern, however, of the promotion of diversity through an artificial gender ratio. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) stated he does not think the government should be in the “business of social culturalization.” Though, in a written statement, Dr. Anne C. Petersen of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation posited that “while the pace of technological and scientific discovery moves forward, society’s ability to transform itself has often lagged behind.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-MD) has introduced H.R. 3007, the Advancement of Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development Act. The bill would set up a commission to study the barriers faced by women in high-tech fields. The commission would be charged with examining the number of women in these fields, the practices of employers relating to the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women, and then issue recommendations to government, industry, and academia based on successful programs. The bill would also direct the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct a study of educational opportunities available to women in science, engineering, and technology. Rep. Morella has stressed that her bill would be a first step towards the advancement of women in high-tech fields.
Monica Moman-Saunders of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
believes, “It will be hard to change the attitude of people out there but
we can change the attitude of the next generation.”