IAP for Research
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Women for Science
Authoring Institution
Release Date
June 1, 2006

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  • A growing concern

    Extensive sociological research has identified many of the factors that contribute to the low representation of women in science and technology. They include girls’ limited access to education, the demands of women’s roles as mothers and caregivers, the lack of mentors and role models, and the lack of leadership training (Etzkowitz et al., 2000; Glover, 2000). These culture-based norms and prejudices create pervasive, intangible barriers that hinder the inclusion of women. Moreover, even when women do manage to enter science or engineering, they often drop out early in their careers. Reasons vary from culture to culture, but the drop-outs are usually caused by lack of provision for combining professional work with the family duties traditionally assigned to women. Such barriers are then heightened by institutional climates for women that are less than hospitable and sometimes outright hostile.

    These problems are increasingly being recognized out of concern about another, overarching problem. In the past 30 years, governments, scientific organizations, business enterprises, and others have become more and more aware of the looming shortages in S&T skills needed for building and maintaining an innovative S&T base. Prosperous countries are particularly concerned about the low appeal that science and technology appear to hold for young people. An obvious strategy for addressing this supply issue is simply to make better use of available resources—to open the doors wide to girls and women for careers in science and engineering.

     This strategy has been articulated in numerous national reports, such as the United Kingdom’s SET for Success (Roberts, 2002), the United State’s The Land Of Plenty (CAWMSET, 2000), and the Republic of South Africa ’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology in South Africa (Bailey and Mouton, 2004). Meanwhile, several countries and international entities, including India, China, Japan, and the European Union (Osborn et al., 2000), have launched initiatives to address these shortages by expanding women’s membership in the S&T community. The United Nations has a core objective in its ‘Education for All’ programme that encompasses girls’ education and regional chairs for women in science (UNESCO, forthcoming).

    These efforts are increasingly stressing the need for change in organizational culture so that gender diversity is accommodated, and they highlight the necessity of developing management practices that encourage all employees, women and men alike, to work to their full potential for the benefit of the organization. Still, while some institutions are taking steps in the right direction, women’s exclusion from prominent S&T careers largely persists, as documented by a number of influential reports (MIT, 1999; Osborn et al., 2000). Moreover, women at the grassroots levels, particularly in developing countries—where S&T capacity building is most needed —continue to be denied access. It has been hypothesized, however, that the high-level aptitude that characterizes top scientists and engineers might not be commonly found in women (Summers, 2005). Yet although there is a substantial body of psychological and brain research that verifies some differences between men’s and women’s mental processes, these differences have not been linked conclusively to S&T aptitude (Hyde et al., 1990; Leahey and Guo, 2001). That being the case, the clearing of existing, well-documented hurdles appears to be a more practical approach than speculating on women’s innate aptitudes.

    A more interesting and fruitful question might be: What, if any, are common characteristics of the outstanding women who have risen to the pinnacles of science throughout the past century, notwithstanding the enormous obstacles they faced? Biographies of women Nobel Prize winners (McGrayne, 2001),interviews with women members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (Wasserman, 2000) and the biographies of women health-sciences trailblazers from the Philippines (Padilla and Santos Ocampo, 2004) unearth some of these common factors: an early fascination with science; independent thinking; early rejection of the cultural limitations imposed on girls and women; support from parents, particularly fathers; a good education, not infrequently in an all-girls environment; having been fortunate in finding mentors; marrying a supportive husband; and having access to reliable childcare. Women’s colleges, such as those established in the United States in the 19th century, have been exceptionally successful in producing female scientists and leaders. However, the number of schools with all-female student populations has been dwindling.

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