Attracting and Retaining Women in Science and Engineering

By Rosser, Sue V. | Academe, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Attracting and Retaining Women in Science and Engineering


Rosser, Sue V., Academe


Women are underrepresented in science and engineering faculties. Improving their representation depends on acknowledging and resolving institutional barriers.

Fiscal year 2001 marked an important milestone in policies to attract and retain women in science and engineering. That year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated an awards program called ADVANCE at a funding level of $19 million. The program supports efforts by institutions and individuals to empower women to participate fully in science and technology. The NSF explained in announcing the program that a category for institutional awards was needed because of an "increasing recognition that the lack of women's full participation at the senior level of academe is often a systemic consequence of academic culture."

At the end of a special meeting held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January 2001, a statement was released on behalf of nine U.S. research universities (the California Institute of Technology; MIT; Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale Universities; and the Universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California, Berkeley) suggesting that institutional barriers have prevented women scientists and engineers from having a level playing field in their professions. "Institutions of higher education have an obligation, both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available," the statement declared, explaining that the signatories "recognize that barriers still exist" for women faculty, and that "this challenge will require significant review of, and potentially significant change in, the procedures within each university, and within the scientific and engineering establishments as a whole." For the first time in public and in print, the leaders of the nation's most prestigious research universities acknowledged the existence of institutional barriers for women scientists and engineers, suggesting that science and engineering might need to change to accommodate women.

The NSF publication Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2002 reports that the percentage of women majoring in scientific and technological fields has increased since the 1960s. By 1998, 49 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in these fields were women. Yet the percentage of women in computing, the physical sciences, and engineering remains lower than in other science-related disciplines. In 1998, women received 74.4 percent of the bachelor's degrees in psychology, 52.7 percent in the biological and agricultural sciences, 52.5 percent in the social sciences, 39 percent in the physical sciences, and 37 percent in the geosciences, but they received only 18.6 percent in engineering. A July 2, 2000, article in the New York Times, "Computer Science Not Drawing Women," reported that the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women had dropped from 37 percent in 1984 to 20 percent in 1999.

The percentage of graduate degrees earned by women in these fields is even lower. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000, published by the NSF, found that although women earned 55.5 percent of the master's degrees in all fields in 1996, they earned only 39.3 percent of the degrees in science and engineering. By specific field, the percentages were as follows: psychology, 71.9 percent; social sciences, 50.2 percent; biological and agricultural sciences, 49.0 percent; mathematics, 40.2 percent; physical sciences, 33.2 percent; geosciences, 29.3 percent; computer sciences, 26.9 percent; and engineering, 17.1 percent.

The same publication reported that women earned 40.6 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in all fields in 1997 but only 32.8 percent of the Ph.D.'s in science and engineering. The percentages for specific fields were 66.6 percent in psychology, 58.7 percent in the social sciences, 40.7 percent in biological and agricultural sciences, 23. …

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