Women in Math, Science and Medicine: Still Work to be Done

The number of women in the labor force is projected to be more than 78 million by 2018. Our goal should be to unleash the talents and productivity of each of them. Yes, there has been improvement. Yes, much more needs to be done.
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In the 1970s and 1980s there was recognition that women were under-represented in careers such as engineering, science, mathematics and medicine. As a result, efforts were made to identify and encourage females who wanted to enter these fields. To an extent, it has worked.

In 1973 only seven percent of full-time U.S. college science and engineering faculty were women. By 2006 the figure had climbed to 30 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. In medicine, once a largely male field, now nearly a third of all physicians are female.

One result of this improvement has been complacency. There is a feeling that we've solved the problem of female under-representation in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. A closer look, however, reveals more work to be done.

While women account for 32 percent of all physicians, for example, many remain concentrated in fields such as general practice, OBGYN and oncology. Of the approximately 160,000 surgeons in the United States, only 19 percent are women. And female physicians and surgeons earn 36 percent less than their male counterparts.

In engineering, while the number of female faculty has risen significantly, only seven percent of all civil engineers, nine percent of electrical engineers and 10 percent of aerospace engineers are female, according to figures compiled by the AFL-CIO.

Better STEM education for males and females is important to our nation. And since women now make up the majority of workers in professional occupations, it is imperative that we maximize, in particular, the potential of that workforce.

Social and cultural barriers still exist, however, steering women away from STEM fields. The mass culture, including television, continues to message middle school and high school girls that it's better to be pretty than smart. It saddened me to see last spring the news story of an 18-year-old girl in Houston whose high school graduation present from her parents was breast implants to "enhance her self-esteem." And girls learn early that it's cuter to scream at a bug than to pick one up.

The educational system plays a large role in shaping attitudes toward learning. Males tend to be motivated by competition but that doesn't work as well, in general, for females who favor collaborative learning experiences. In today's "teach to the test" climate, however, there is little incentive to do more than follow the prescribed curricula. Creativity is sacrificed for the memorization of facts. As a result, math and science education in high school often is uninspiring.

One potentially promising development is the recent appearance in some school districts of all-female and all-male academies wherein girls can learn in the collaborative manner that seems to suit many of them best and boys can learn in competitive ways. It's too early to tell whether these single-sex learning units work. I applaud the effort to find out.

At the higher education level, there needs to be more scheduling elasticity in field work options for students interested in the sciences. If a field trip is scheduled for only one time during a semester, and that time comes when a female is not able to participate, because of her anatomy, is that "biological inferiority" or a lack of scheduling flexibility?

Women who might enter math, science and medical careers also sense a lack of support from industry and the professions. Alone among developed nations, the United States guarantees no paid leave for mothers in any segment of the work force for parental involvement and to take care of sick family members. If the employment sector were more accommodating to these needs, what a wellspring of talent they could tap.

The number of women in the labor force is projected to be more than 78 million by 2018. Our goal should be to unleash the talents and productivity of each of them. Yes, there has been improvement. Yes, much more needs to be done.

Molly Weinburgh is director of the Andrews Institute for Mathematics and Science Education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.