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Obstacles for Women Scientists Could Slow Global Innovation

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Women scientists and students are still confronted by a “chilly” climate at many U.S. universities, and unless conditions improve, their departure from science and technology fields could hinder the nation’s strength in a competitive global economy, said AAAS President Alice S. Huang.

Speaking at the AAAS Caribbean Division’s 25th annual conference, the accomplished virologist and educator said it is imperative that the United States identify and support science talent wherever it is found. And she urged universities and colleges to lead those efforts.


Campus Challenge. AAAS President Alice S. Huang urged more systematic support for women in science and engineering.

“We’ve actually had marvelous changes in society in the past 20 years or so,” Huang told the audience at the 25 September talk. “There has been much more acceptance of women.... But there is still a great deal that needs to be done. We’re not there yet—and we’re losing out on a lot of individuals who could contribute.”

Huang’s talk was one of several recent AAAS reports and events—including one on Capitol Hill—to explore the challenges faced by women in science, engineering, and technology fields. While women still report problems ranging from overt bias to a lack of social support, there is an increasing recognition that they must be crucial players in the global drive for innovation.

A new survey of more than 1000 researchers, commissioned by AAAS/Science for L’Oreal USA (see found that more than half of the women who responded said they had experienced gender bias. More than half cited difficulties with child care as a major career barrier.

“We need to be more imaginative about how one can have a successful career in science as well as a life,” said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “It will be necessary to reorient the expectations so that women scientists face fewer hurdles and can play on a level field with their male counterparts.”

Support for women scientists has taken on new prominence as policy-makers promote innovation and technology development as economic necessities. Unless the United States can tap into the skill and experience of women and underrepresented minorities, Huang said, the nation may become less competitive.

Huang advised women to seek out mentors, join professional associations, and promote their own work. The AAAS survey found that women are lacking such support: Nearly one-third lacked career role models, and a quarter of the women said teachers and advisors could have helped them overcome career obstacles, compared to 14% of the men surveyed.

o remedy these deficits, policy-makers and employers are searching for new ways to support women scientists and engineers, speakers said at a 23 September Capitol Hill panel discussion of the survey. U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D—TX), who delivered opening remarks, has introduced legislation to promote gender parity among university faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

“We need to keep the attention on getting rid of those barriers as much as we can,” Johnson said.

Programs to remove career barriers for women scientists and engineers globally are the focus of renewed attention and funding by the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, and an array of other development agencies, speakers said at a regional meeting of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES). The meeting, held 25 to 26 August and hosted by Education and Human Resources and the AAAS International Office, featured scientists, educators, and policy experts from 11 nations.

Many of Joshua Mandell’s clients at the World Bank “have expressed a demand” for science and technology programs that include a significant role for women, the program officer noted at the meeting, because the programs “can have strong impacts on economic growth.”