When Maria Sklodowska decided she wanted to continue her education at the collegiate level in 1886, she joined a “floating university,” avoiding detection by the czar’s police in Warsaw by attending night classes at changing locations. Her trek to “Madame Marie Curie,” the famed female physicist-chemist and first person honored with two Nobel Prizes, was a difficult journey, as it was for many of the female scientists and engineers of earlier centuries.
Currie’s work, along with the advancements made by other pioneering female scientists and engineers in the 18th and 19th centuries, began a trend that over 130 years later is beginning to come full circle. The trend toward equality of educational and occupational attainment between women and men continues.
“As a female engineer just entering the workforce I can confidently say that women are gaining momentum in the science and engineering (S&E) fields,” said Akanksha Raja, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) chemical engineer.
In the chemical engineering department at Raja’s 2010 alma mater, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the majority of the professors are female.
“The fact that there exists an engineering department comprised mostly of women shows how the gap between women and men in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is decreasing,” Raja said.
As a newcomer to the ECBC workforce, Raja represents one of the more than 8 million women currently employed in S&E fields in the U.S. Since 1966, the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in S&E in the U.S. has increased almost every year. Undergraduate women began reaching parity with men in the early 1980s as societal barriers to female scholarship fell away.
“When I graduated from college in 1980 the percent of women from my university that graduated in engineering or science was about 18 percent,” Bill Klein, ECBC Engineering associate director said. “When looking at the number of people hired at ECBC since 2000, the percentage of female new hires is 32 percent. As more women graduate with S&E degrees, more women enter those career fields – and we’ve seen that growth here at ECBC as well.”
From 1950 to 2000, employment in U.S. S&E occupations grew from fewer than 200,000 to approximately 4.8 million workers. The average annual growth rate of 6.7 percent contrasts with a 1.6 percent annual average growth rate for total employment. This contrast reveals the increased importance of STEM knowledge and as Engineering Associate Director and ECBC Rock Island Site Manager Nan Ramsey said, the pressing need for the inclusion of women in S&E fields.
“If we encourage them to pursue undergraduate and/or graduate study in these areas, it will ultimately increase the number of women who will take up leadership positions in the science and engineering fields,” Ramsey said.
Sharing her perspective on the leveling educational field, ECBC Special Projects Branch Chief Genna Rowe said that the participation of women in S&E fields has changed significantly over the last 10 to 20 years.
“When I started my undergraduate degree, I was in the minority in the math and science classes. By the time I started taking my graduate courses, the classes were fairly even,” Rowe said. “Since 2001 until now, I have seen many smart and talented women join the S&E workforce here at ECBC and work their way up to leadership positions.”
In 2009, the evolution toward educational equality between the genders marked a significant milestone. For the first time, more women than men in the United States received doctoral degrees, representing the culmination of decades of change in the status of women at colleges nationwide. Of the doctoral degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, 28,962 went to women and 28,469 to men, according to an annual enrollment report from the Council of Graduate Schools, based in Washington.
However, according to the enrollment report, when considering the STEM doctoral degrees awarded, men still earned a majority of the mathematics and the physical sciences degrees and earned 80 percent of engineering doctorates.
“More women are going to school for STEM related careers, but not enough,” Ramsey said. “I’ve seen a lot more women entering into senior leadership positions, and the sciences are one of those areas. The glass ceiling has dropped away in many respects, but we still need to encourage more and more women to get involved in the STEM fields.”
Overall, women and girls make up 51 percent of the U.S. population and the United States Department of Labor estimates that the U.S. labor force is expected to increase by 12.8 million persons between 2006 and 2016, with about 6.3 million – or close to 49 percent – being women. But women have not conquered every corridor of the ivory tower.
Beneath these summative statistics lies what Harvard sociologists Yu Xie and Kimberlee Shauman refer to as “stubborn exceptions.” In their book “Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes” published in 2003, Xie and Shauman address the trend known as the “leaking science pipeline,” a metaphor used to refer to the collective loss of women along the STEM-related career path. Women represent a large part of the talent pool for S&E, but many data sources indicate that they are more likely than men to “leak” out of the pipeline in the sciences before obtaining a tenured position at a college or university.
Based on the pipeline metaphor, assuming a STEM career begins in middle and secondary school science and mathematics classes, the path continues through the natural educational transitions with a student’s intentions to major in a STEM subject in college, followed by attending graduate school, receiving a masters and Ph.D., attaining postdoctoral placements, and progressing through formal academic careers as a scientist, engineer or professor.
A recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that women who receive Ph.D.s in the sciences were less likely than men to seek academic research positions and they were more likely to drop out before attaining tenure if they did take on a faculty post.
“The leaking pipeline portrays the cumulative loss of women along the way without specifying the mechanisms that propel the loss,” Xie and Shauman assert in their book.
Instead, the authors propose a “life course” perspective to explain the attrition.
“The life course perspective proposes that life transitions are interdependent across education, family, and work domains and that later transitions are contingent on, but not determined by, earlier transitions. Hence, the science pipeline does not operate in a social vacuum,” the authors state.
Despite the “leaky pipeline,” female representation in S&E positions at the doctoral level continues to increase. Based on the National Science Board’s 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators report, women are a higher proportion of nonacademic S&E occupations at the doctoral level, increasing from about 23 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2005.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence from women like ECBC’s Raja, Ramsey, Rowe and the many other female scientists and engineers in the Center continues to speak to the optimism and practical strides taken to close both the educational and occupational attainment gaps between men and women.
“There have certainly been challenges I have had to face in this field. Other than the challenges of becoming a mother while developing a career, there were other professional challenges,” Rowe said. “In my earlier years at ECBC, I found it very difficult for my opinions to be heard and my ideas to be taken seriously. I learned the hard way that I had to make sure to speak up, without being asked, when I had something of value to add. I learned very quickly that if I spoke with confidence, and if I spoke up loud enough, I was eventually heard.”
Madame Curie and the many other female scientists and engineers of earlier centuries paved a path for current generations to lead the way over the past 100-plus years. And as Raja says, the coming generations of women S&E leaders continue to blaze a trail.
“I believe the changes we are seeing in the S&E workforce are due to more women becoming independent and realizing that maintaining their independence requires them to acquire a good education,” Raja said.