Even with considerable progress made by women and girls in science and technology jobs and education, many women still feel that labs and other technology workplaces are unfriendly or hostile environments, according to a recent report by the National Council for Research on Women.
The NCRW released the report "Balancing the Equation: Where are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology?" in mid-July. The study found that women made up 45 pe rcent of the 1996 US work force but held only 12 per cent of business and industrial science and engineering jobs.
"The results are not surprising," says Laura Meyer, president of WorldWIT, an online community for women in technology. Meyer says that many of the WorldWIT members work in jobs that support the IT industry, such as finance, public relations, and law.
But for the women in WorldWIT and elsewhere who hold technical positions, reaching the senior management is still difficult, Meyer says.
"There are very few women in higher-level IT positions, especially in the CTO job. [Women] are not breaking into the top levels, into top decision-making positions," Meyer says. "A large part of that is that there is a smaller pool of women coming up. There are not as many women at the top level to mentor other women."
The report includes statistics that show significant gender differences in university degrees earned by discipline.
In 1984, women earned 37 per cent of undergraduate computer science degrees. But by 1999, women earned fewer than 20 per cent of computer science degrees.
In 1996, women earned 53 per cent of undergraduate degrees in biology, 46 per cent of degrees in math and statistics, 19 per cent of physics degrees, and 18 per cent of engineering degrees.
In 1996, 56 per cent of Advanced Placement test takers were female. But 90 per cent of computer science test takers and 78 per cent of physics test takers were male.
Closing the gap
The "Balancing the Equation" report calls for businesses and educational institutions to take action to narrow science's and technology's gender gap.
Employers should develop strategies to make the workplace more diverse, promote capable women to senior decision-making positions, provide role models for younger women employees, and offer more opportunities for networking and learning from mentors.
Top executives should institute and promote family-friendly policies.
To improve retention rates, employers should immediately assign new science and engineering graduates to real projects, rather than training exercises.
The WorldWIT president agrees that businesses must do more to get women into IT and into the higher ranks. But she also sees that traditional business structures may need to be rethought. "Putting in face time ... isn't always the most conducive. Some women need more flexibility to be successful, not the 9 to 5 hierarchical structure which is the main structure for work today."
Meyer believes that companies don't take the gender gap seriously enough. "Getting women into higher-level positions is not on the radar screen for many businesses. [But] women can do these jobs."