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White Men, White Coats, Little Change

by Nancy Forbes

January 2007

Nancy Forbes is a scientist based in Washington and author of “Imitation of Life: How
Biology is Inspiring Computing”. This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun on August 6, 2006.

The recent, alarming report by the National Academies of Science on the health of our
innovation economy, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Energizing and Employing
America for a Brighter Economic Future,” did the nation a major service by decrying the dismal
state of science and math education in the U.S. and the gradual erosion of our world primacy in
science and technology.

But the report fell short in one crucial area: It failed to address the persistent shortage of women
and minorities in science and engineering.

The report, whose authors included university presidents, company executives and Nobel Prize
winners, presented convincing evidence that the foundation for a healthy economy, national
security and quality of life is “derived in large part from the productivity of well-trained people
and the steady stream of scientific and technical innovations they produce.” It repeatedly drove
home the fact that our role as world leader is linked to our standing in science and technology
more than we know, and that we can’t afford to be as complacent about it as we have been.

To address the problem, the authors proposed a series of actions centered around four main
focus areas: improving K-12 education in math and science; encouraging the best and brightest
students to enter undergraduate and graduate study in science and engineering; strengthening
basic and applied research and development; and revitalizing high-tech innovation and
entrepreneurship. The Bush administration appears to have taken their recommendations
to heart, with its $136 billion, 10-year American Competitiveness Initiative.

Yet, as a scientist and longtime advocate of women and minorities in the field, I was surprised
- and dismayed - to find diversity issues missing from the four key challenge areas. Women
and minorities are still not full participants in science and engineering, especially in the upper
echelons, and renewed efforts to further this goal could make a substantial difference in our
technological future.

The under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering
and math has been researched and re-researched for decades now, so there is a plethora of data
on the topic. Did the authors of “The Gathering Storm” feel diversity was old hat? Or did they
think the situation had so improved that there wasn’t much of a problem anymore?

Yes, there have been gains. Women now hold more than a quarter of all science and
engineering jobs, compared with 13 percent in 1980. They now earn roughly half the doctorates
in biology and degrees in medicine. Numbers are also up in physics, computer science and
engineering, traditionally male domains.

In 1983, women held less than 6 percent of all engineering jobs. Today, that has doubled.
Almost half of all high school physics students are female, yet they are still only 18 percent of all
physics doctorates. Black and Hispanic physicists are rarities. From 1983–2003, only 115—less
than 1 percent-of doctorates in physics went to U.S. African-Americans, and only a few more to
Hispanics. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the almost 15,000 of these academic degree awarded
went to white males. Our racial minorities still make up less than 1 percent of the physics job market; the
numbers in engineering are equally low.

Even with these upward trends, women and minority scientists and engineers do not
always realize their full potential or reach their maximum intellectual heights. Attrition remains
a serious problem, beginning in elementary school. Many girls and non-Caucasians with a
natural curiosity about science lose interest for lack of encouragement, mentoring or proper
instruction. Or they may lack role models and simply give up.

Loss of talent occurs at all stages of the educational and career pipeline. For example,
many women and minorities claim they still feel “diminished by discrimination we barely
see,” as Meg Urry, a friend and one of the few female tenured physics professors, once put it.
Women and minority scientists and engineers, on the whole, still earn less money than their
male colleagues. They obtain fewer of the top jobs, and feel marginalized, undervalued, and
less respected. Many find their careers derailed by subtle discrimination or the difficulty of
balancing family and work. Success is often less a question of ability than how well one handles
the cumulative effects of bias and an unfriendly school or job climate.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium at an annual meeting of the National Academy of
Sciences. Though I didn’t expect to see many women or minorities, I was still bowled over
by the sheer number of Caucasian, gray-haired males in the auditorium. The feeling of being so
completely outnumbered was visceral, similar to what I had experienced in physics classrooms or
later on, at meetings in the Washington defense engineering community. Situations like this can
impede “full participation,” as those in the minority become too inhibited or intimidated to
speak up. Parity in the field seemed eons away.

So for those who sincerely care about the future of U.S. science and technology and want
to help stem the tide of its decline, I would like to add a fifth recommendation to the four
already put forth in the academies’ report: that all members of our science and engineering
community, particularly those nonfemale and nonminority members, make a personal effort
to increase diversity in science, technology, engineering and math. Suggestions include:

  • Mentoring female or minority students through encouragement, guidance or
    emotional support. Studies show that those with mentors have higher salaries, more
    advanced positions and greater confidence in their ability to succeed.
  • Helping qualified women or minorities along their career paths by giving them
    referrals, recommendations or outright recruitment.
  • Nominating them for leadership positions.
  • Showing support for junior female or minority colleagues in the workplace. This
    could involve salary parity, an important committee membership, and most
    importantly, friendship.
  • Giving credit to a woman, black, Hispanic or other minority scientist or engineer
    when credit is due.

In the Association for Women In Science (AWIS), a 35-year-old national organization I
belong to, we use the expression, “to give a hand up” to describe efforts to help women become
full participants in the field. It’s my gut feeling that if we all “gave a hand up” to women and
minority scientists and engineers, it would make a measurable difference in the future of our
science and engineering enterprise. There’s a huge talent pool out there. Trust me.

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