UW professor: women still behind in sciences

Joyce Yen says when she goes to academic conferences, there’s never a line for the women’s restroom.

Though they’ve made many gains, women still lag behind men in the sciences and engineering to the detriment of scientific and technological advances, Yen argued in a lecture last week.

“You don’t want solutions to the world’s problems to come from the same type of people. You end up with less diversity, creativity and innovation,” said Yen, a University of Washington assistant professor of industrial engineering who spoke at Bellevue Community College on the dearth of women in science and technology.

She pointed to early car air bags, which were designed to protect the average male, a one-dimensional mode of thinking that harmed children and small women, she said.

Yen said women are more likely to think collaboratively than men, who she said tend to think competitively. That’s increasingly seen as an asset in the corporate world and in the scientific community, she added.

Data compiled by the Association for Women in Science seem to support Yen’s conclusion that women continue to be underrepresented in the sciences. In 1966, women received 0.4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees, 0.6 percent of master’s degrees and 0.3 percent of doctoral degrees nationwide. In 1996, the numbers were 17.9 percent, 17.1 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively.

Women have made greater gains in biology, chemistry and especially medicine, where the number enrolled in medical schools rose from 9 percent in 1970 to 44 percent in 1999. Among women scientists, 77 percent believe it is harder for women to succeed in science because of their gender.

Yen cited ingrained gender bias for the slower rates of progress than in other academic and professional areas.

“It starts right from the moment you put some Legos in front of a 1-year-old boy but not a 1-year-old girl,” she said. Women don’t consider careers in science and technology because of “years of social conditioning that tell them not to be scientists,” she said.

Women must be recruited into math, science and engineering departments and then given special nurturing, Yen said.

April Ibarra, a BCC student who hopes to become a veterinarian, said she had benefited from the nurturing of female professors especially.

A professor at the lecture – attended by about 15 women, nearly all faculty and staff members – said she would love to nurture women students, if she could find some.

“Only a quarter of my students are women,” said professor Jennifer Laveglia, who teaches calculus in BCC’s math department. “Yeah, we can reach out, but if there’s no one to reach out to, it’s hard.”