For years women were underrepresented in many scientific fields, a trend only recently reversing itself with rising numbers of women in medicine and the life sciences.
But the inequity between women and men in the physical sciences and technical fields is still large, said astronomy professor Roberta Humphreys, who is also the new associate dean in the University’s Institute of Technology.
“Women are around 52 percent of the population in the United States, but in these fields, our enrollment – undergraduate and graduate – is only 20 percent women or less,” Humphreys said.
Humphreys said the problem is likely cultural, noting the ratio between men and women in the physical sciences and technical fields in other countries is not as imbalanced as in the United States.
The University’s trend mirrors that of the entire United States. Experts said if it continues, the trend could have serious consequences for research and its applications.
“The negative impact of not addressing this and attracting more women to these fields is that the work force will be depleted,” said Claire Van Ummersen, vice president and director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education.
“If you waste half of your work force, then you only have a small number of people to fall back on at times when the faculty ranks will be thinned through retirement and industry demands,” she said.
The problem is not unique to the University. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1999-2000 academic year approximately 13 times as many men received bachelor’s degrees as women in the combined fields of engineering and engineering-related technologies.
Such imbalance spells trouble for the faculty at research universities across the country. The lack of female faculty in these disciplines, Van Ummersen said, leaves few role models for young women to look up to.
“They don’t see anybody that looks like them, and that’s an issue,” she said.
Valerie Castle, a University of Michigan associate provost who oversees the school’s Center for the Education of Women, said faculty members need mentors, too.
“These women are often at a point in their careers where they’re getting married and having a family, and in these fields, there aren’t always good role models for women that they can see having a family while securing an academic career,” Castle said.
Beth Stadler, a University electrical engineering professor, has experienced the conflict between family and career responsibilities. When Stadler came to the University as an adjunct professor, her plans for a family interfered with her career.
“My husband found his dream job at Medtronic, but I preferred being at the ‘U’ as my first choice,” she said. “But I was due with my first child two months after we moved, and so I was home at first for several months.”
Stadler said the University’s level of support was “quite incredible.”
Offering support to its female faculty is only one way the research universities are trying to increase diversity in the scientific fields.
Castle said most universities participate in national efforts to channel more women into the physical science and engineering fields.
Carla Trujillo, director of a graduate academic diversity program at the University of California-Berkeley, said she has organized multiple programs to increase female enrollment in technical fields, targeting audiences both in and out of academia.
“Here at Berkeley, I produced an interactive theater workshop on gender, race, age and disability for faculty and students,” she said.
The creative effort, which took two years and a grant to plan, was wildly successful, she said.
To combat the difficulties women in engineering and the physical sciences increasingly encountered in the workplace and the classroom, Humphreys and a handful of other female faculty helped the University form the IT department’s Program for Women in 1990. In hopes of recruiting and retaining more women in IT, the program organized summer camps for K-12 girls and informal pizza lunches between undergraduates and female graduate students, among other initiatives.
Just because there is a shortage of females in certain University colleges however, does not mean women will gain an admittance advantage, school officials said.
Wayne Sigler, University director of admissions, said in fields where a gender is underrepresented, an applicant’s gender could be important. But it does not dominate the admissions process.
“(Gender) is only one factor among many – it’s never the controlling factor. And we simply won’t sacrifice the academic qualifications to achieve diversity,” he said.
The University’s latest effort, the IT Distinguished Women Scientists and Engineers Speakers Program, brings in female experts from multiple fields to offer encouragement for women students and faculty.
Another big supporter of women in science and engineering is a University student group.
“One of the things that has been very successful here is the Society of Women Engineers,” Humphreys said. “The student branch in IT is very active; they have a meeting about once a month. I went to one and I was amazed – there were about a hundred people in the room, and some of them were guys.”
Jeanette Leland, a physics senior, said a lot of guys come to the meetings because women attend and there is free food.
Leland said the group conducts multiple outreach efforts, such as overnighters for high school girls, and also provides scholarship opportunities.
Laura Marsden, an IT senior and the society’s co-president, said the group also runs a mentorship program and works with corporate professionals who give members tips about writing resumes and conducting interviews.
Marsden agrees with Humphreys that the key to getting more women into technical fields is to give them early attention and plenty of opportunities.
“I think that we need to start in the high schools and elementary schools because if you aren’t interested in math and science throughout high school, you can’t pick it up in college and be successful with it,” Marsden said. “It’s really something that needs to start earlier than college.”
Humphreys said the problem generally lies early in the journey through school.
“Girls then might be doing very well in science and math, but something happens during those years,” she said. “There’s nothing unique about being female that keeps you from being a good scientist or a good engineer.”
IT students, male and female, have different explanations for the disparity.
“I know a lot of girls that feel that they’re told from an early age they’re bad at math,” said Matt Mecklenburg, a physics sophomore. “Somehow, it’s installed in their heads that if they’re a girl, they’re bad at math – that they can’t do it, so they never try.”
Leland said females, who typically want to help individuals, might misunderstand the public benefits of working in technical fields.
Everyone knows biologists and medical doctors can heal, but fewer people realize physical scientists and engineers can help too, Leland said.
“The stereotype of the engineer is the nerdy guy with a plaid shirt and a slide rule – you don’t see him as saving small children’s lives,” she said.
Lee Billings covers faculty and staff affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]