Dichotomy of Women in S&T

Two articles this week on women in science and technology fields. The first “Why Women Quit Technology Careers” in ComputerWorld talks about a trend that we have been watching for awhile. The article notes a study that shows that despite a strong presence in the early stages of science and technology careers, 40 percent of women leave those fields in their 30s and 40s. While having children is a factor for the drop, it is not the most significant one the study found. There were four other factors that were more important in the drop in women.
1. High levels of blatant and subtle misogyny or sexual harassment.
2. Isolation
3. Lack of a career map
4. Rewarding of risk taking as a path to promotion (building a system that doesn’t break is not rewarded but high pressure situations involving fixing broken systems are rewarded with promotions)
The study is “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology” and was conducted through the Center for Work-Life Policy.
The second article, “Revenge of the Nerdette” in Newsweek shows the other end of the spectrum of women in science and technology. The article talks about a group of girls in college who are fighting the stereotype of “nerd” and who are completely comfortable being both feminine and very into math and science. The article points out, “That comfort level has as much to do with culture as it does with technology. Depictions of geeks as socially awkward math whizzes date back to caricatures in tech-school humor magazines from the 1950s, such as MIT’s Voodoo. But the geeks of MIT were strictly male, as were subsequent takes on the stereotype, such as the nerdy men of 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” and Screech on “Saved by the Bell.” Today’s girl geeks are members of the first generation to have been truly reared on technology.” These “Nerd Girls” are forming clubs, outreach programs, and mentoring programs. Maybe this is the first step to combat the problems found in the Athena study and the upcoming generation will knock down these barriers for a life long career in science and technology fields.
Because the topic is in the news, this is probably also a good opportunity to talk a little about some of the things CRA is doing to help address the factors that lead women to chareer fields. CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing(CRA-W) does great work in running programs aimed at targeting that sense of the isolation women in IT might feel and trying to help promote a sense of “belonging” at several points in the pipeline. The Grad Cohort program brings hundreds of students together for a kick-off workshop and follow-on activities. The Cohort for Associate Professors Program targets associate professors and has a track for mid-level industry researchers and exposes the participants to role models in various career tracks (academia and industry/government labs) as do the Career Mentoring Workshops. One of the most effective sessions at the CAPP workshop is when the Distinguished Speakers have the opportunity to sit with the attendees one-on-one and review their C.V.s – giving advice on how best to get promoted to the next level. In addition, CRA-W also runs the Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergrads Program with the Coalition to Diversify Computing that brings together groups of women and/or minorities to work on a year-long research topic and fosters a sense of community. The same can be said for the Distributed Mentor Project, which pairs an undergrad for a summer research experience with a mentor (and usually his or her research group).
Finally for those interested, there is a session planned for our upcoming Snowbird Conference called “Practical Solutions to a Continuing Problem: Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination.” Information on all the CRA-W programs can be found at the CRA-W web site.
Together programs like CRA’s and initiatives by groups like the “Nerd Girls” could help cause a fundamental shift in attitude toward science and technology both inside and outside the fields and allow the best and brightest, regardless of gender, to apply themselves to solve the most fundamental science and technology challenges.