White men, white coats, little change

August 06, 2006|By NANCY FORBES

The recent, alarming report by the National Academies of Science on the health of our innovation economy, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," did the nation a major service by decrying the dismal state of science and math education in the U.S. and the gradual erosion of our world primacy in science and technology.

But the report fell short in one crucial area: It failed to address the persistent shortage of women and minorities in science and engineering.

The report, whose authors included university presidents, company executives and Nobel Prize winners, presented convincing evidence that the foundation for a healthy economy, national security and quality of life is "derived in large part from the productivity of well-trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technical innovations they produce." It repeatedly drove home the fact that our role as world leader is linked to our standing in science and technology more than we know, and that we can't afford to be as complacent about it as we have been.

To address the problem, the authors proposed a series of actions centered around four main focus areas: improving K-12 education in math and science; encouraging the best and brightest students to enter undergraduate and graduate study in science and engineering; strengthening basic and applied research and development; and revitalizing high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship. The Bush administration appears to have taken their recommendations to heart, with its $136 billion, 10-year American Competitiveness Initiative.

Yet, as a scientist and longtime advocate of women and minorities in the field, I was surprised - and dismayed - to find diversity issues missing from the four key challenge areas. Women and minorities are still not full participants in science and engineering, especially in the upper echelons, and renewed efforts to further this goal could make a substantial difference in our technological future.

The under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math has been researched and re-researched for decades now, so there is a plethora of data on the topic. Did the authors of "The Gathering Storm" feel diversity was old hat? Or did they think the situation had so improved that there wasn't much of a problem anymore?

Yes, there have been gains. Women now hold more than a quarter of all science and engineering jobs, compared with 13 percent in 1980. They now earn roughly half the doctorates in biology and degrees in medicine. Numbers are also up in physics, computer science and engineering, traditionally male domains.

In 1983, women held less than 6 percent of all engineering jobs. Today, that has doubled. Almost half of all high school physics students are female, yet they are still only 18 percent of all physics doctorates. Black and Hispanic physicists are rarities. From 1983-2003, only 115 - less than 1 percent - of doctorates in physics went to U.S. African-Americans, and only a few more to Hispanics. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the almost 15,000 of these academic degree awarded went to white males. Our racial minorities still make up less than 1 percent of the physics job market; the numbers in engineering are equally low.

Even with these upward trends, women and minority scientists and engineers do not always realize their full potential or reach their maximum intellectual heights. Attrition remains a serious problem, beginning in elementary school. Many girls and non-Caucasians with a natural curiosity about science lose interest for lack of encouragement, mentoring or proper instruction. Or they may lack role models and simply give up.

Loss of talent occurs at all stages of the educational and career pipeline. For example, many women and minorities claim they still feel "diminished by discrimination we barely see," as Meg Urry, a friend and one of the few female tenured physics professors, once put it. Women and minority scientists and engineers, on the whole, still earn less money than their male colleagues. They obtain fewer of the top jobs, and feel marginalized, undervalued, and less respected. Many find their careers derailed by subtle discrimination or the difficulty of balancing family and work. Success is often less a question of ability than how well one handles the cumulative effects of bias and an unfriendly school or job climate.

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