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Working Toward 50-50 By 2020: Women in Science Take Stock

April 1996

A new generation of women scientists, many of whom benefitted from NSF's investments in research and education programs, has made long strides toward redefining the stereotype of the brilliant scientist as a thoughtful, white-coated man.

Women now make up a bigger percentage of American scientists and engineers than ever before. Still, women who want a career in the sciences face obstacles; thus, a more level playing field for women in science will continue to be an NSF priority well into the 21st Century.

"50-50 BY 2020"

That priority was the focus of a December 1995 conference sponsored by NSF in Washington. About 700 scientists and engineers from across the country convened to address the theme, "Women and Science: Celebrating Achievements, Charting Challenges."

The challenge to the women who attended was "50-50 by 2020"; that is, a one-to-one ratio of women to men in science 24 years from now.

NSF is working with women of all ages to meet that challenge. Programs encourage schoolgirls to consider scientific careers. For women faculty in colleges and universities, NSF's Visiting Professorships for Women provide a change of venue, an opportunity to meet new people, and the chance to be research-oriented role models.

"In biology, if we don't have diversity among species, we begin to see species die out. That's not a bad way to think about science," NSF Deputy Director Anne C. Petersen told conferees. "We really need the richness of a lot of ideas from a lot of perspectives. And that's one of the contributions women can make."

Many who have benefitted from NSF programs have tried to work with their own institutions. "Part of the solution to getting more women in upper leadership positions is preparing the women in lower levels," Petersen said. "But in addition, there still will have to be efforts to overcome negative attitudes about women as leaders in many fields of science and engineering."


Affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws have enabled more women than in the past to survive -- and thrive -- in careers in science and engineering. NSF, the Association for Women in Science, and other organizations have helped, as has the dedication of established women scientists and engineers who serve as mentors for younger colleagues and students.

Women's participation has risen in almost all academic disciplines, faster in some than in others (see box).


As women have advanced in scientific and engineering careers, their tactics for removing barriers have become more sophisticated.

Shirley M. Malcom is a veteran of many tactical encounters. A member of the National Science Board as well as the President's Committee of Advisors in Science and Technology, Malcom advised the December conference to move forward continually, even if the steps seem small.

"Don't let perfection be the enemy of good," she said, encouraging women to press their institutions for specific goals. She urged them to be scientific in their pursuit of equity, to ask for data and to document women's situations.

At times, she noted, more emphasis may be needed. "Stop being polite. Challenge people. Be prepared to ask the impolite questions."

One question that many are asking is why do women who drop out of science have grades as good as the men who stay in. Malcom offered some likely explanations: discrimination, lack of support, and pressures associated with marriage, family, and child care. But nobody knows for sure.

"We know the retention and graduation rates for college basketball players," she pointed out. "Why not for women studying science?"

She urged women to press university administrators to conduct exit interviews with women who drop science majors, then use that information to help bring about change.

But she cautioned against expecting results overnight. "Nobody likes change but a wet baby," she said, noting that large systems are especially biased in favor of the status quo.


The conference produced consensus recommendations for NSF and other institutions to achieve the goals of greater scientific attainment by women and a more scientifically literate society overall. The recommendations included:

  • Enable women and girls to participate fully in science and engineering by making available a greater variety of resources such as career awareness and career planning assistance.
  • Increase public understanding of the role that women can and do play in science and engineering; dispel myths and stereotypes.
  • Communicate to women and girls the importance of being scientifically literate citizens, mothers, and students.
  • Recognize and reinforce the importance of mentoring and being mentored at all levels of education and career.
  • Hold institutions accountable for discrimination based on gender.
  • Strengthen the connections among organizations that have a stake in the participation of women in the sciences, such as the corporate and academic worlds, the formal and informal education sectors, associations of women and scientific associations, and between higher education and K-12.
  • Put greater emphasis on determining what works best in increasing opportunities for women and girls, and sharing this knowledge.

In his message to the Conference on Women and Science, NSF Director Neal Lane observed that:

"This Nation is getting ready to run an experiment it has never done before-to see if we can reduce the Federal investment in R&D by 33 percent and still be a world leader... While we are engaging in the struggle to maintain the vitality of the science enterprise in this country, we must not lose sight of the fact that full inclusion of women is critical to our national success. The threat of scarce resources must not divide us but must unite us around a common purpose."


Following is an excerpt from the keynote address by Anne C. Petersen, Deputy Director of NSF:

"Our society is only beginning to appreciate the true complexity surrounding issues of family and child rearing. In a report I co-authored, we found that young women still expect to play a larger role in family responsibilities than do young men.

"If we went around the room today, we'd undoubtedly find a few hundred stories that each shed new light on this issue. I recall a friend telling me that we kid ourselves into believing that childcare duties can be split 50/50. They really require 110 percent from each parent.

"My husband and I were determined to do it all and not slow down after our daughter was born. We went so far as to develop an elaborate changing of the guards system of childcare. Every day, we would meet at the train station--the 'IC' on Chicago's South Side. One of us would carry Christy in a tummy pack, and we would hand off the pack as we passed each other at the turnstiles. I'm sure we were quite a sight.

"As unique as our system was, I've realized that being a woman scientist is no different from being a woman in any professional field. When I compare notes with friends who are in law or business, the issues are the same; they just use different terms. Instead of worrying about how having a family will affect their chances at getting tenure, they worry about how it will affect making partner...

"In the end, the solution to our leadership lies within ourselves, for ourselves. We who have climbed the steep slopes by clawing and hanging on should not demand this as initiation for those who follow. Rather, we need to provide a web of support, encouragement, and example. We must nurture, guide, and teach. We must reach down to girls and young women and show them a path paved with encouragement. And this effort will only be enhanced by the participation of our male colleagues."

Women as percent of degree recipients
 PhDsUndergrad degreesPhDsUndergrad degrees
Agrigricultural and biological science14342449
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Engineering< 1< 1916
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Physical sciences6151832
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Mathematics and computer science8361736
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Source: NSF


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