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Accepting Some Gender Gaps In Science

October 24, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 43

The article “Gender Gap Holds Constant” discusses a recent Department of Commerce study of women in science that bemoans what it perceives as the low percentage of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees being earned by women (C&EN, Aug. 29, page 28).

The study also laments that women hold only about a quarter of what it identifies as STEM jobs. It speculates that gender parity in these fields would boost U.S. innovation and competitiveness.

This analysis is not easy to follow in light of the progress women have made in the U.S. in intellectual areas, including science, over the past quarter-century. STEM-based activities would be in a very sorry state without this enhanced female participation. In many cases today the question is not “Where are the women?” but “What’s happened to the men?” According to National Science Foundation data, in 2008 women earned 50% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, 46% of master’s, and a growing 40% of doctorates.

The breakdown for chemistry was just about the same. In 2009 women earned 55% of life sciences doctorates, 57% of molecular biology doctorates, and 47% of biochemistry doctorates. Women earned fewer physics doctorates, 20%, and engineering doctorates, 21%. But both these levels were about 50% higher than they had been 10 years earlier.

The biggest change has been in first professional degrees. In 1983 men earned 52,000 and women, 22,000. By 2008 men were down to 46,000; women were up to 47,000. Since gender discrimination became illegal and first started to lessen in the 1980s, all elements of academia and the workforce are moving slowly to find their new gender equilibrium.

This is where personal choice comes in. Even in the total absence of gender bias, some disciplines and jobs would continue to be more attractive to men, others to women. What is not important is eventual gender parity in all areas. It won’t happen. It doesn’t have to.

What is important is progress along the continuum from the blatant and institutionalized gender bias of yesterday to the full professional acceptance of individuals in their chosen fields, regardless of their gender.

Demographics make this transition a multidecade process. Many working women today carry the scars of gender bias. But all the statistics now indicate solid movement toward gender acceptance.

By Michael Heylin
Falls Church, Va



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