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Closing the PhD gender gap. US needs women to fill future shortage of researchers

By Metta WinterSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 1988

Ithaca, N.Y.

UNDER the present educational system in the United States it takes 2,000 ninth-grade girls to produce one woman with a doctorate in science or engineering, according to a recent study conducted by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. The statistic is startling when placed in the context of demographic projections for the future production of doctoral-level researchers. According to both the Office of Technology Assessment and the National Science Foundation (NSF), there will be a 38 percent decrease in US students receiving doctorates in the natural sciences by the year 2000 if present trends continue.

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Women represent the largest potential source of people to fill the rapidly growing shortage in scientific and technical personnel expected within the next two decades.

``One of the most important offsetting trends is the rapid increase in the participation of women across all fields of science and engineering,'' says Sheila Widnall, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Widnall is also chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although the percentage of women receiving doctorates in natural sciences and engineering has almost tripled since the early 1970s, the current number of women is still quite small - only 200 per 1,000.

According to Widnall, if the number of women could be increased by just a factor of 2.5 - more than double but less than triple - the predicted shortfall in scientific and technical expertise could be avoided altogether.

To meet this quite modest goal, efforts need to be concentrated in three areas: mathematical training in the elementary grades, support in making career choices between high school and college, and encouragement of women at the graduate school level.

Cornell University and the NSF held a conference on women in science last month that focused on the graduate school experience. In her keynote address, Widnall characterized the process of earning a doctoral degree as an ``apprenticeship in research.'' During this time a student should develop technical expertise and career-related skills needed for a ``highly professional, highly autonomous, independent scientific career with the kind of leverage needed to make one's mark in the scientific community.''

``It's not just a question of getting the degree but also whether a woman gets the type of background that really prepares her to go out there and function in the field,'' says physicist Barbara Wilson, former chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics of the American Physical Society and technical supervisor in the research area of AT&T Bell Laboratories.

``Cornell faculty were concerned that their graduate students might not be as competitive with students from other universities who might not be as technically knowledgeable, simply because they might not get the training on professional issues,'' says conference director Alice Newman. A space physicist, she is at Cornell this year through the NSF Visiting Professorships for Women Program.

All Dr. Newman's qualifying ``mights'' are borne out in three recent surveys conducted at Stanford University and at MIT. They show that women graduate students do not experience the support system - the source of professionalizing opportunities - in the same way their male counterparts do. To make matters worse, the long-range importance of the skills acquired in the support process is rarely made explicit to women students. Often all they know is that the going is rough.

Financial assistance that offers major responsibility for research projects; access to academic resources; frequency and quality of feedback on research performance; opportunities to publish, and particularly to be first author on publications; recognition of value and potential as a professional through unbiased evaluation of r'esum'es, proposals, and papers; and treatment that emphasizes one's status as a student instead of one's gender are among the critical areas in which women graduate students reported a comparative lack of faculty support.

Yet it is appropriate support in these areas that gives a student access to a variety of professional experiences designed to enhance self-confidence, build independence, and acquire and practice the skills that will be crucial later on.

Clearly the system needs to change. But until it does, women students must get from somewhere else the kind of care and support that have traditionally been lavished on men in graduate school. Hence, the coming together of 13 eminent women scientists from industry, academia, and medicine to give them just that.

Brimful of practical, career-related information, the day-long conference was a good start for the more than 400 women graduate students who attended. ``You can't do it all in a day,'' noted Dr. Newman, ``but it is important to let women know the topics that will be important to them.''

The spirit of the event was perhaps best exemplified by the opening address, ``How to Succeed in Science Without a Y-Chromosome,'' delivered by chemist Ann Briscoe, director of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Biochemistry Laboratory, vice-chairman of the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, and one of the founders of the Association for Women in Science.

``What brought me here,'' said this distinguished scientist who was born two years before women got the vote, ``is a sense of mission. Your country needs you to become its scientists, research workers, teachers of science, and inventors. Women are 50 percent of the college population. Yet of the quarter of a million scientists and engineers working in the United States today only 16 percent are women. We've got to do better at that. And we can, if we lend each other a helping hand.''