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Review: Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Upping the Numbers, eds. Ronald J. Burke and Mary C. Mattis, 2007 (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.) Hardcover, $170 at amazon.com

by Jennifer L. Hoffman

January 2009

Jennifer L. Hoffman is an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Denver (DU). She studies the circumstellar material around hot stars and supernovae using a combination of spectropolarimetric observations and 3-D computational modeling. She is also developing a program to enhance science education among the non-traditional female students at DU’s Women’s College. She maintains a compilation of recent statistics on women in astronomy at http://grammai.org/astrowomen/allstats.html.

In the wake of Lawrence Summers’ controversial statements regarding the reasons for women’s under-representation in science, the gender and racial makeup of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce has been the subject of increased discussion. Though the blogosphere hosts no shortage of vocal supporters of Summers’ hypothesis that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” (Summers 2005) are the largest contributing factor to the low number of women in science and engineering, more pragmatic observers take note of the fact that the situation is changing, albeit glacially. This suggests that even if some difference in aptitude exists, its effects are still negligible compared with the social and environmental factors that discourage women and minorities from pursuing STEM careers.

However, those who believe the STEM community has an obligation to correct the inequities that prevent large numbers of talented potential scientists and engineers from joining its ranks are often discouraged by the seeming intractability of the problem. If there were a single dominant cause of the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM, one would expect that by now the myriad studies of the issue would have identified it and we would be well on our way to remedying its effects. Unfortunately, the situation is not that simple. The frequency of blatant sexism and racism in the STEM workplace has indeed decreased dramatically in recent years (as was frequently noted at the 2003 Women in Astronomy conference by those who had attended the 1993 inaugural meeting). Yet inequities persist, and those that remain are the more insidious for being numerous, widely distributed, and subtle. It may sometimes seem as though the problem will never be solved because we can never hope to address all the numerous ways women and minorities face small accumulating disadvantages (Valian 1999). On the other hand, one can take heart from the fact that precisely because the situation is so multifaceted, any small improvements are likely to make a difference for a few people – and in the case of very small populations, such as the number of female full professors in astronomy (50/406 in the “top 40” astronomy departments) or the number of minority professors in astronomy at any rank (55/594 in the “top 40”; Nelson et al. 2007), a few people can change the face of the profession.

For those looking for specific, tested strategies they can implement locally to help even the odds for women and minorities in STEM fields, Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Upping the Numbers is a useful reference. Beyond laying out the scope and causes of the problem (both of which it does well), this book collects a number of articles that describe a broad variety of programs and initiatives aimed at all aspects of the representation problem, including public relations campaigns to change high-school girls’ perceptions of engineering, summer bridge programs to ease college transitions for underrepresented minority students, curriculum reform and mentoring efforts to provide support during college years, and academic and industrial initiatives to “warm the climate” for women and minorities in the workplace. In some cases, detailed guidelines for establishing such programs are included; in others, recent research results outlined along with broad suggestions for how they might inspire future efforts. References are extensive throughout, providing many entry points for scientists and engineers to explore the literature in psychology, sociology, science education, and other related fields in which research has been done on underrepresented groups in STEM.

The book is divided into five sections. “Women and Minorities in STEM: The Big Picture” lays out the statistics and basic issues involved, including arguments for increasing diversity in technical and scientific fields, summaries of the obstacles that women and minorities face, and “action strategies” that can help mitigate these obstacles. “Experiences of Women and Minorities in STEM” presents studies describing the statistics and specific issues of five particular populations: female engineering students in the UK, female employees in US information-technology companies, African-American PhD candidates in the sciences, Israeli women in high-tech and scientific fields, and Asian Americans in science and engineering. The articles in this section vary widely in focus and style but offer a range of useful perspectives on different aspects of the representation issue. The latter three sections consider different segments of the career “pipeline.” “Building Interest and Commitment to STEM” focuses on girls of high-school age and the factors that affect their decisions to enter and remain in STEM fields. “Enriching the Educational Experience” discusses changes in undergraduate education that can encourage participation by female and minority students in math, science, and engineering. Finally, “Improving the Professional Experience” outlines efforts to support women in academic STEM departments and the engineering industry.

Each chapter has its own points of interest, but I found a few particularly engaging. The article on stereotype threat by Jennifer Steele and colleagues at York University provides a fascinating overview of a new and exciting area of research and its consequences for efforts to improve diversity in technical fields. (Stereotype threat describes a phenomenon in which members of a stereotyped group tend to fulfill that stereotype after being reminded of it. For example, women tend to perform more poorly than men on a math test when told beforehand that the test has revealed gender differences in the past, when exposed beforehand to gender-stereotypic television commercials, or even when most of the other test-takers are men.) The chapter on undergraduate student programs by Bevlee Watford at the National Science Foundation includes very detailed descriptions of successful initiatives such as “bridge” or transition programs for incoming students, formal mentoring groups, and residential learning communities. Watford lays out specific instructions and guidelines for anyone considering establishing such programs locally. I also found the discussion of Israeli women in STEM by Ronit Kark at Bar-Ilan University valuable for its insight into familiar issues in a cultural context quite different from that of the US. The emphasis placed on motherhood and familialism in Israeli culture results in similar disadvantages for women in technical fields as in the Western world, but Kark sees hope in the rise of a “new ideal” of Israeli femininity that celebrates the woman “struggling to juggle active family caring with a career… as the cultural heroine of the new economy in Israel.”

The individual chapters in Upping the Numbers vary widely in style, from dense and heavily referenced academic feminist prose to casual storytelling and advice. Reading several chapters in succession can make the collection seem disjointed. But in practice, most readers will be interested in one or two particular chapters at a time, so this unevenness is not a major drawback. Rather, each approach has its own benefits, so that anyone who persists and delves deeply into the book will collect along the way not only a long list of articles to look up and add to her personal bibliography, but also a rich assortment of ideas inspired by the descriptions found in the more anecdotal essays. What links the chapters and elevates the book above the level of much of the public discourse on the topic (which tends to be obsessed with pinpointing the causes of the skewed numbers) is the emphasis on specific actions; whatever facet of the problem one proposes to engage, this volume offers strategies for addressing the relevant issues and examples of programs that work.

Beyond these valuable concrete suggestions, the collection is quite strong in general. I appreciated the emphasis on the variety of experience of women and minorities in different fields and different cultures, as lessons learned from one population can be relevant for another. Another recurring theme has to do with the messages we send to young people, to job seekers, and to colleagues by our everyday actions and the way we represent ourselves and our work; this seems to me an underemphasized but powerful way of encouraging personal responsibility and involvement in making our communities welcoming for all members. On a purely practical level, Upping the Numbers is well structured: its preface provides a concise but detailed summary of each article that can be used to focus one’s reading or to search for specific topics, and the index is quite detailed and includes the surnames of all the first authors referenced in each article—a boon for anyone cross-referencing related material.

My complaints about the book are minor and mainly reflect the nature of an edited collection. There are several instances of overlap between chapters, and terminology tends to vary from author to author. Somewhat more troubling are occasional ambiguous sentences, unclear figures, and statistical assertions that fail to disclose the characteristics of the sample or account for obvious systematic effects. Finally, the hefty price tag ($170 on amazon.com, hardback only) will prevent Upping the Numbers from reaching as wide an audience as it deserves. However, the book’s strengths clearly outweigh these small failings, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic, especially if she can borrow it from her local or university library.

Summers, L. H. 2005, Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce (transcript available at http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html)

Nelson, D., Brammer, C. N., & Rhoads, H. 2007, A National Analysis of Minorities in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities, http://cheminfo.chem.ou.edu/faculty/djn/diversity/Faculty_Tables_FY07/07Report.pdf

Valian, V. 1999, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

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