Participation by women in scientific research is rising — women now outnumber men majoring in biological sciences and the percentage of women awarded doctoral degrees in life sciences grew from 15 percent in 1969 to 52 percent in 2009. Yet women’s participation in other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) still lags; fewer than 20 percent of undergraduate majors in computer science and engineering are women, and as they rise through the ranks, disparities persist. Women are still underrepresented in faculty positions, female engineers publish in more prestigious journals but their work is cited less frequently, and editorial boards for journals in STEM fields remain overwhelmingly male.
Looking beyond academia to consider broader social impact, indicators of unequal participation are worrisome. As women enter the workforce, we see even more differentiation by field, with women comprising 34 percent of environmental engineers but only 8 percent of mechanical engineers. Gender imbalances in the technology industry and financial sector are widely recognized. Three recent studies illuminate attitudes and practices limiting women’s advancement in science and technology.
Consider women’s underrepresentation in patenting, an indicator of participation in tech commercialization. Although the situation is somewhat murky, since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) collects no demographic information, a report released in November by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that patents with at least one woman inventor reached only 18.8 percent in 2010. This marks an increase over the rate in 1977, when 3.4 percent of patents listed at least one woman inventor; but at current rates, it will be 2092 before women reach parity (i.e., half of all patents will have at least one female inventor).
Women also face challenges in raising external equity for their startup companies. Women-owned businesses receive limited funding from venture capital investments — in 2016, 17 percent of total Series A rounds nationwide were for companies led by women. In the competitive Bay Area, women-led companies raised just 10 percent of Series A rounds, an uptick of two percentage points over the previous year. In a recent study on term-sheet negotiations, the authors considered factors influencing the amount of external funding raised, the percentage of overall goal this represented, and the amount of equity companies gave up. Two factors positively influenced raising at least 90 percent of capital sought: using the internet to research the negotiation process…and having a man serve as lead negotiator.
Perhaps most poignant among recent studies is one published in Science last week, showing that shortfalls in girls’ self-image regarding their intellectual aptitude begins as early as 6 years old. At age 5, children don’t differentiate by gender who they predict will be “really, really smart,” but by age 6 a significant difference emerges among both boy and girl respondents, with both attributing the characteristic of “being smart” to boys/men more than girls/women. These aren’t endogenous developments, of course, but rather are shaped by cultural attitudes from caregivers, family, and the media. A New York Times article by the study’s authors adds an illuminating example: In 2014, Google searches for “is my son a genius” outnumbered searches for “is my daughter a genius” by two to one.
What can be done to advance participation of women and girls in science? Organizations must improve data collection on gender diversity and publicize results, not just in patenting but in academic achievement and employment in STEM fields. Technology companies, consulting firms, and social science researchers have begun the work but more is needed, for we can’t fix what we don’t know. Highlighting accomplished women leaders in science and technology, as we have at CITRIS with the Athena Awards, will provide role models and help inspire the next generation: examples include director of the National Science Foundation France Córdova, former White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, director of USPTO Michelle K. Lee, as well as leaders in elected office and the private sector. Grassroots advocacy efforts to improve gender diversity include the new international organization 500 Women Scientists. Parents, teachers and friends have opportunities to encourage girls’ curiosity; tools include a spate of recent children’s literature as well as toys designed to spark girls’ exploration of engineering concepts and the natural world.
Meaningful discoveries in science and technology promise to improve quality of life and maintain economic competitiveness—for individual companies, industries, and the U.S. at large. These gains will be fully realized only by embracing the full expression of creativity and resourcefulness offered by men and women alike. On this day, recognized by the UN to promote “Women and Girls in Science,” leaders across sectors must commit to accelerate momentum for girls and young women to achieve this vibrant future.