Let’s deal with facts, not hysteria

It’s no longer news women earn more B.A. degrees than men. Small, liberal arts institutions are so female-dominated, some coeds worry more about finding a man than passing their biochemistry final.

More recently we learned that women now outnumber men in science and engineering undergraduate programs. The National Science Foundation reports in 2001, women earned more than 202,000 such degrees compared with 197,623 earned by men. But what we cannot figure out is the bizarre rationale behind why these gains in women’s education levels have yet to translate into gains in the real world of work. Two years ago, there were just shy of 575,000-employed science and engineering PhD’s nationwide.

Only one-fourth was female. While that’s a significant gain over prior generations, women are not advancing in their career tracks at anywhere near the pace at which they’re gaining degrees. No one understands why.

The debate between liberal and conservative women’s groups goes as follows:

Liberals: women continue to face routine workplace discrimination and gender bias in hiring, promotion and pay. Conservatives: women’s lack of advancement is their own choice; they’d rather stay home to raise kids than command higher salaries and success in the world outside the home.

The fields of science and engineering have been particularly hard for women to crack. So, too, have the lofty ranks of tenured professorships in science and engineering university departments. Former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’ decamp would not have been so abrupt if he had had a better track record on offering tenure to women professors. (Summers, you’ll recall, posited women’s relative lack of success in the fields of math and science might stem from innate biological differences between the sexes.)

Perhaps we should spend less time and effort trying to divine a reason and more time recruiting less-represented groups to fill technical jobs. Last fall the National Academy of Sciences sent Congress a report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” In it leading scientists, academicians, and business executives warned the “scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding” and we’re about to be bypassed by, you guessed it, the same two countries overtaking us in manufacturing and outsourcing: China and India.

Columbia University Professor David Keyes wrote one of the most cogent arguments I’ve seen for setting gender differences aside and hightailing it toward producing more science and engineering graduates, as quickly as possible. Keyes, of Columbia’s applied physics and mathematics department, says the sooner we do so, and the more scientists and engineers we employ, the better.

In a January article for the university’s newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, he wrote: “China graduates about 600,000 bachelor’s-level engineers per year, compared to 70,000 for the U.S., and it costs about one-fifth as much to employ an engineer in China. India graduates 350,000 engineers per year, and employs them for one-eleventh as much. In the past, the U.S. counted on importing the best of foreign trained engineering bachelor’s holders, who now make up 65 percent of the doctoral degree candidates in engineering at U.S. universities. Today, fewer foreign-born U.S. PhD holders can be expected to remain in the U.S., now that their native infrastructures for S&E research and education are improving.”

Setting population differences aside (China and India are the two most populous nations on earth), Keyes notes the United States needs to train more scientists and engineers to remain globally competitive. If we took an average group of 100 24-year-old Americans, 5.5 of them (an unrealistic number, I understand) would have baccalaureates in science or engineering. If we break that down by gender, an average 4.5 per hundred women would be in that group, compared with 7 in 100 men. Simply by boosting the percentage of women who enter these fields (and, the percentages of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans) we would come a lot closer to meeting America’s future needs.

The time for debate and division is over. The time to conquer our economic weaknesses is upon us. It matters not why women (and some minority groups) are underrepresented in science and engineering. It matters only that we push for their advancement.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)