Monday, September 18, 2006

National Academies: Women are capable of being fine scientists and engineers, but discrimination is holding them back

By Nancy Jane Moore

The reason that there aren't more women at the top levels of science and engineering isn't lack of brainpower. It's discrimination.

So says a thorough and strong report from the National Academies -- the nonprofit associations of experts in science, engineering, and medicine -- issued Sept. 18.

Not only is this discrimination unfair and wrong, the report says, but it is also harmful to the country:
To maintain its scientific and engineering leadership amid increasing economic and educational globalization, the United States must aggressively pursue the innovative capacity of all of its people -- women and men.
And their solution isn't just to encourage young women to pursue scientific careers. In its conclusions, the report says the leadership at colleges and universities -- the presidents, the deans, the department chairs, the senior faculty -- along with the professional organizations, the honorary societies, and the federal government, must take positive action to ensure that women can develop productive careers in science and engineering.

A pulls-no-punches report like this is heady news at a time when all too many people would like to believe that all the discrimination problems in our society have been solved and that any career problems are the result of individual failure.

Here's what the report has to say to Larry Summers and all the others who have contended that women just aren't equipped with the necessary brains and drive to be good scientists:
Studies of brain structure and function, of hormonal modulation of performance, of human cognitive development, and of human evolution have not found any significant biological differences between men and women in performing science and mathematics that can account for the lower representation of women in academic faculty and scientific leadership positions in these fields. The drive and motivation of women scientists and engineers is demonstrated by those women who persist in academic careers despite barriers that disproportionately disadvantage them.
This report was put together by scientists, and it uses scientific methodology to make its case. According to the summary, the various chapters address such things as whether women are less skilled in mathematics (female performance in high school math now matches male performance, the study says) and whether women are less professionally competitive than men (the study says no).

Discrimination occurs in every field. Part of the problem is implicit bias -- most people will give men the benefit of the doubt, but not women. Another factor is that it is assumed -- without substantial evidence -- that scientists must be assertive and strong-minded, but women who display these characteristics are often cast in negative light and other factors -- such as flexibility or dedication -- are given short shrift. But it's not only these attitudes that affect women's careers -- policies that don't account for family life are also part of the problem.

I'm thrilled to see such prominent people in the sciences taking a such a strong stand for women. I hope the university leaders and others challenged by the report will take it seriously and begin to follow its suggestions.

The full report -- Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering -- is quite lengthy. I've only read the summary and the press release. But the whole work is available for your perusal.

You can purchase a copy of the full report or browse through sections for free in open book format here.

The press release summarizing the report is here.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran online stories on this report on Monday.

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