Article explores methods to improve the industrial environment for and attract more women into science and engineering
Author(s): Mairin Brennan
This abstract is based on a report of the proceedings of the second annual conference of the National Research Council's (NRC) Committee on Women in Science and Engineering (CSWE), held in February 1993. The theme of the conference was "Women Scientists and Engineers Employed in Industry: Why So Few?" The main purpose of the conference was not to express gripes that women had, but to determine what must be done to help improve the industrial environment for women and to attract more women into science and engineering. The problems that women have to face in industry today were reflected in the fact that many of the women at the conference did not want their managers to know that they were attending. Women were hesitant to speak candidly about issues that troubled them.
One of the issues discussed was the underrepresentation of women in the industrial sector. According to Betty Vetter, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, white males made up 47% of the work force in 1985, but by the year 2000 this figure would drop to 41%. Among all scientists and engineers, however, women made up only 16%. These figures suggest that bias exists against women in the industrial environment. Two main reasons were presented to explain why bias was allowed to persist. First, bias towards women is often not recognized as such by managers. Second, women do not know how to overcome bias.
The high attrition rate of women in science and engineering in industry was also highlighted. It was noted that attrition of women scientists and engineers in industry is even higher than that of women in academia, government, and nonprofit organizations. The reasons that many women gave for leaving had to do with family, lack of mentoring, and mismatches of interest and career.
It was concluded that the only way that more women could be attracted to science and engineering in industry would be to promote changes within the organizations that would be beneficial not only to women but also to the company, otherwise, the changes would not be implemented. Special mention was made of some organizations that were implementing change, e.g., Xerox and the Argonne National Laboratory. Both had started programs to deal with women's issues. It was also noted that many companies still practice discrimination. For example, when interviewing a woman, they might still ask whether she is married, has children, or is intending to have children. Women at the conference believed that one of the ways to get companies to change was by strictly enforcing discrimination laws. They also maintained that it is the responsibility of the women who are discriminated against to report the discrimination.
The issue of resources available to effect a change in the industrial environment was also raised. The participants in the conference highlighted two major organizations that worked with companies to recommend and implement policies which would eliminate bias toward women.
Another issue that was raised was networking. Women at the conference agreed that in order to curb the high attrition of women from science and engineering, effective mentoring should be started as early as possible. Women need mentors and also need to learn how to be mentors. Women could help to establish mentoring by setting up networks. Women at the conference were urged to build communication networks including electronic mailing lists and bulletin boards. Such networks would help to provide information on job opportunities, conferences, papers, and general women's issues.
The conference participants also reflected on the impact that women executives could have on the "industrial environment." According to speaker Mary L. Good (senior vice-president for technology at Allied Signal Inc.), statistics from a report in Management Review, March 1992, show that in 1990 only 254 of the 5,638 directors of Fortune 500 companies were women. The reason given for this was that often women were not high enough in the corporation to be considered for executive positions. The women at the conference believed that the only way that women could attain executive power was by cracking the corporate network. Executive women's networks would help women find out when a position was open and what qualifications were needed to fill it.
They also noted that the shift in industry from hierarchical management to team management would cause an increase in the number of women holding management positions. Team management would mean that an employee would have several managers and people from different areas would be involved in the decision-making process. These "new" managers would have to be flexible and adaptable; women, since they often possess both these traits, are well equipped for the new role.
Among the other issues raised at the conference were the conflict between the timing of career development and a woman's biological clock, and federal legislation to combat sexual harassment of women. The participants declared the conference was a success and observed that it radiated a sense of hope and community.
--abstract by Rae Lewis.