As more studies and panels of experts detail the perceived downward spiral of America’s competitiveness in science,  the new edition of the biennial report, "Professional Women and Minorities," finds a slice of good news over the long term. While women and members of minority groups still lag behind white men in education and employment in science and engineering, both groups have been closing this gap over the last 40 years. However, women have made, and continue to make, substantially greater progress than minorities.
In a report released last week,  the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology takes a broad, historical look at how women and members of minority groups have fared in getting degrees in science and engineering and tracks their numbers in these fields of employment. The commission found that women have doubled their share of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering over the last four decades. In 1966, they earned one quarter (24.8 percent) of bachelor's degrees in those fields, while in 2004, they earned half (50.4 percent). Over the same time span, women also gained a dramatically greater percentage of master’s degrees – 13.3 percent in 1966 versus 43.6 percent in 2004. At the doctorate level, the increase was especially noteworthy – 8 percent in 1966 compared to 37.4 percent in 2004.
In many professional fields, women have achieved parity and sometimes surpassed men. In 2003-4, women earned 46 percent of the degrees in medicine, along with 57 percent in optometry, 67 percent in pharmacy, and 74 percent in veterinary medicine.
The report also noted that women now make up 25 percent of the labor force in science, engineering and technology fields. However, that proportion varied widely, with fewer women in occupations that require a high level of skill in math, such as engineering. Nathan E. Bell, an associate director with the commission and one of the report’s authors, said that women are avoiding those fields.
“The strange thing is that at the high school level, women are prepared in math,” he said. “So it’s not that they are not prepared, but something is happening during enrollment and in college and they making different choices for some reason.”
Female Representation in Science and Engineering Occupations, 2005
|Chemists & Materials Scientists||35.3%|
|Computer Software Engineers||21.9%|
Gains made by underrepresented minorities have not been as significant as they have been for women, the report finds. Hispanics make up about 14 percent of the population, but earned only 7.3 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 4.3 percent of the master’s degrees, and 2.7 percent of the doctorates in science and engineering fields in 2003-4. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and earned 8.4 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 6.3 percent of the master’s and 2.8 percent of the doctorates. American Indians comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population and earned less than 1 percent of degrees in science and engineering, regardless of discipline.
Proportion of Science and Engineering Degrees for Women and Minority Group Members, 2003-4
|Women||Minority Group Members|
In the work force, Hispanics and African Americans continue to lack substantial representation. Bell said that a much greater percentage of Hispanics than African Americans are employed as engineers, and pointed out that African Americans now make up a significant percentage of database administrators.
African American and Hispanic Representation in Science and Engineering Occupations, 2005
|Chemists & Materials Scientists||5.6%||2.7%|
|Computer Software Engineers||5.0%||3.9%|