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Reception Remarks

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Leveraging Experience to Accelerate Progress (LEAP): Moving Towards Gender Equity in Engineering Education Conference
Washington, DC
January 14, 2003

Good evening. It's a privilege to address a group that is both knowledgeable on the issue of gender equity and committed to the progress of women in engineering.

I want to applaud you for your leadership in launching this conference: The National Academy of Engineering, host; Intel and Tufts University, sponsors; Dupont, ExxonMobil Foundation, hp, and IBM, supporters -- as well as Senator Wyden and all of the university and industry partners present who are contributing their energy and insight. You are not only the believers in the cause but you know how to get things done. And now you're gathered to capitalize on your can-do, your movement.

Acceleration is today's name of the game. Even the acronym for your conference has great caché, a rarity in acronym-prone DC. LEAP [Leveraging Experience to Accelerate Progress] - is an appropriate metaphor for our common task. After many years of inexorable, incremental improvement, it is time now to LEAP - what a great aim for innovative engineers to take, to wit: a step function change to realize our common goal.

The LEAP conference is part of a large and vitally important effort to ensure that "the other half" of the nation's human capital is encouraged, attracted, retained, and full-fledged participants in the science and engineering enterprise. Your collective dedication - to research, to teaching and mentoring, to engineering practice, to economic development, and to communicating on this issue - is a contribution of great moment.

I think we can agree that although we have begun to address the task of gender equity in engineering and science that we are still far short of our goal. Tonight I want to join you in persuading us that engineers can and should take the lead role as advocates for accelerating this work.

We are in a special position to create the significant "LEAP" forward that will realize the full potential of our citizens' resources and bring their contributions to bear on our nation's future. In a sense, we have the responsibility to be the leading "accelerators of progress." After all, engineers accelerate our nation's economic development. We are in the thick of enabling innovations in the commercial market…and in the process, help to develop whole new industries and consequent economic wealth. Quoting from The Economist, "America gets more than half of its economic growth from industries that barely existed a decade ago…" In a sense, without engineers, the world stops.

Diversifying the science, engineering, and technology workforce is vital to the nation's continuing prosperity and ability to compete. This is no longer a matter for debate and lengthy discussion. Achieving gender equity is old business that the nation must address as rapidly as possible.

We're all familiar with the problem, a cascading effect that starts in the early grades:

A disproportionately high number of girls lose interest in science and mathematics by the time they reach middle school and high school. Not enough of them enroll in the advanced high school math and science courses that would prepare them for college work.

We have a disproportionately low number of women with undergraduate majors in the physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering. And not surprisingly, not enough women complete graduate degrees in these fields.

As a consequence, women advance at a snail's pace to the senior ranks and leadership positions in industry, business, academe, and government careers. And, of course, society as a whole suffers the setbacks of a diminished science and engineering workforce, fewer high-level leaders and innovators, and a citizenry that is far less literate than it ought to be at a time when technological innovation is the force carrying society forward.

All of you have great experience in one or more facets of the cycle I just described - and have been taking corrective action. You deserve our gratitude for making things happen.

The National Science Foundation is anxious to support you and we need you to advise us on effective ways to help.

NSF's contributions over the years have focused on funding initiatives to attract and prepare girls and women for engineering and science careers. As one example, our Program for Gender Equity is a series of investments to reduce the barriers that prevent girls and women from learning science, mathematics, engineering, and technology at every level.

We know that effective learning begins with the student's belief that she is unconditionally capable of succeeding. That belief is formed early, so NSF targets student groups beginning in kindergarten. Our ambition is then to nurture that belief: from grades 4 to 8 (the "valley of death" for girls studying math and science) on through high school, the undergraduate years, graduate school, and beyond.

Many of you are familiar with the program, so I will only offer brief highlights:

It evaluates what works, especially in those areas with a lower representation of women and girls, such as engineering and physics.

It disseminates information and sponsors career counseling and tutorials on gender issues in science and engineering for students, faculty, parents, and administrators.

It supports education technology to alleviate the digital divide and research on gender differences in learning mathematics.

It addresses gender equity in the university climate through mentoring programs and undergraduate research opportunities.

It fosters improved collaborations between institutions, including partnerships among stakeholders in universities, industry, and professional associations.

NSF's Math and Science Partnership investment ($150-200M/year) also creates collaborations, primarily among school systems and universities, to boost the capacity of the preK-12 educational process to prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists and a science and technology literate citizenry.

A pinnacle NSF investment is the ADVANCE program, which promotes a more productive climate for women to pursue academic careers in science and engineering. Some of the ADVANCE awards give individuals who had limits to their career advancement a chance to jumpstart their careers. Others target institutional transformation, supporting institutions committed to advancing women faculty into the upper ranks.

As a community, we've added to our understanding of what works. That list includes the power of extracurricular activities; mentoring and role modeling, including electronic mentoring; summer camp activities and internships; the professional development of educators and community leaders; and the involvement of parents.

Mentor relationships offer especially important encouragement to girls who are excited about science and engineering and want to make their mark. We would do well to promote a vital double link: of women teaching science, mathematics, and engineering at all grade levels, and of women mentoring the next generation of women in business, industry, and government.

Mentors impel careers. They help set sound direction and give support to reach well beyond what young women think they can grasp…or even know is there to be grasped. We need to help young women who are setting a challenging course for themselves in engineering and science to find mentors who mute the seeming obstacles and inspire them to excel.

We all have much more to learn about the complex underpinnings of gender equity issues: about human cognition and perception, about social influences and peer relations and stereotypes, about attitude and culture in children's learning and development.

But tonight I am most concerned about how we are going to act on the knowledge we already possess.

A recent NSF nationwide survey of 416 U.S. universities brings discouraging news. The 2001 survey reports that science and engineering Ph.D.s in this country have declined about 7%, from almost 27,300 in 1998 to just over 25,500 in 2001.

In the physical sciences, women still represent less than one quarter of earned doctoral degrees, just 16.8 percent. In physics women have gained just one percentage point over 10 years, earning only 11.9 percent of the doctorates in 1992, and just 13 percent in 2001. In computer science, the survey found that women earned 18.8 percent of the doctorates in 2001. These numbers should worry us under any circumstances. But they are especially troublesome today, when the U.S. is facing a future enabled only by highly skilled workers in science, engineering, and technology. We simply must have an effective engineering and science workforce if we are to build the nation's capacity to perform in a globally competitive marketplace.

In recent years many U.S. businesses have stepped up their recruitment of foreign engineers, scientists, and technology workers. This is not a new dynamic: As you may recall, Congress raised the ceiling on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999.

While America wisely opens its arms to immigrants, as a community we must recognize that dependence only on this source of brainpower is precarious by nature. Heavy U.S. reliance on foreign talent just doesn't make sense as more and more nations go global and tap into the same labor pool to grow their economies.

We have been woefully negligent in not getting our own house in order. U.S. productivity and innovation are sorely threatened by our malaise in getting this task done. It is a strategic imperative that we ensure robust opportunity for our citizens to be part of our science and engineering workforce. And we must also make a robust effort to make engineering and science attractive to them.

As the Congressional "Land of Plenty" report documented in 2000, we have a significant domestic population of women and minorities that can become the science and engineering workforce of the future. Our community knows better than most that you cannot train and employ scientists and engineers quickly. It takes robust investment, institutional change, government consciousness of the issue, and the long-term involvement of teachers and other professionals in the science and engineering community.

It is much easier to turn the proverbial ocean liner around: That only requires time. Our task is considerably more complicated. That is why this conference is so important: It gives engineers the opportunity to become true leaders in the acceleration of gender equity in the U.S. S&T and engineering workforce.

We tend to forget that engineers are the second most populous profession in this country, behind K-12 teachers. Collectively, engineers comprise a mainstream force in government, industry, and academe. We already exert a positive influence on U.S. innovation, research, and education - but we speak with many voices. Isn't it in our interest to be united as advocates, to speak with one urgent voice about developing the latent science and engineering talent our country needs for the future?

The historian and author Edith Hamilton once commented on how differently English intellectuals and the thinkers of ancient Greece viewed the process of writing: "The English method is to fill the mind with beauty; the Greek method was to set the mind to work."

Well, engineers create things of beauty by putting their minds to work.

We know from experience that setting young minds to work in engineering or physics or other disciplines of science is a long and complicated process. These minds must be put into motion early and kept on track if we expect to see well-prepared U.S. citizens enter our profession 15 or 20 years from now. It is a journey that requires extraordinary effort from students and generous support from those of us who can help them reach their goals. And what a thing of beauty that would be!

The "LEAP" forward I hope to see in our country's future depends on "setting minds to work" among women, minorities, and other populations that are underrepresented in the engineering workforce.

The nation's success in capitalizing on our great diversity can expand our prosperity and help to fulfill the promise of constitutional equity. We know that diversity gives strength to the fabric of our society. It will be our strongest suit for enabling the future.

The theme of this conference -- leveraging experience to accelerate progress - is a precise and powerful formula for building gender equity in engineering. I urge you to sustain the momentum you create in Washington this week by asserting a leadership role on behalf of the country.

Together, we can do this!

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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