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We Undervalue Women in Science at Our Peril

September 19, 2000|JALEH DAIE | Jaleh Daie is founder of Women in Science and Technology Alliance. She is senior advisor at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation

You do not have to live in Silicon Valley or be a genius to understand the close link between the expansion of our economy and advances in science and technology. To keep pace, we must reach out to all segments of our population--particularly women and minorities--who are essential to keeping our competitive edge.

While a case can be made for all underrepresented groups, for the moment, let's take the case of women, many of whom are on the sidelines in their fields. After more than 30 years of positive intervention, a few good policies and some truly tangible results, the science and technology work force remains, unmistakably, male-dominated.

According to a recent National Science and Technology Council report, white males in 1997 received less than half of all science and technology degrees, yet they held 65% of the jobs in those fields. While women earned nearly half of the undergraduate degrees and a third of the doctoral degrees, they held only 18% of the science and technology jobs.

To make matters worse, in fields such as computer science, where the great demand for skilled workers is going unabated, women are earning fewer degrees today than they did a decade or more ago (28% in 1999 versus 37% in 1985).

The conventional wisdom emphasizes a numbers problem--not enough women are in the pipeline. This is a myth. In the life sciences, there is now parity in numbers, but equity remains elusive.

Take molecular biology. Today, about half of the PhDs in molecular biology are awarded to women. But in the field's upper levels and in tracks with potential for significant and timely career advancement, women are still grossly underrepresented.

The chilly climate for women in academia, outlined in a 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the status of its women faculty in science, is replicated in the corporate world and government agencies. In the nascent field of biotechnology, for example, where women have busted the numbers myth, only 1% of top positions in biotech corporations (CEO, chief operating officer, chief scientific or technology officer, research director) are held by women, sending a powerfully discouraging signal.

These data suggest the absence of a direct relationship between science and technology education and careers. In other words, many men enter and succeed in the science and technology work force without earning degrees in those fields, and many women who have earned such degrees drop out of the science and technology work force. Why?

A reasonable interpretation is that the climate and culture of science and technology workplaces are unwelcoming to women. While the causes for the situation are complex, we must recognize the evidence for differences in biological and cognitive wiring and learning styles between women and men, as well as social conditioning. We need to learn to not only respect these differences, but to exploit them, both in educational settings as well as in the workplace.

This issue is about more than the ideal of social justice. The imbalance has serious implications for our national competitiveness. Only about one-third of our population is white male. We can't continue to rely on this small a part of our population to fill the growing number of high-tech jobs. Nor can we rely forever on importing skilled work force.

Our economic success will be compromised unless we figure out how to attract and retain women in these jobs and increase the number of women at the top of their fields.

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