By ABI Staff, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
By Sue Hutchison, San Jose Mercury News
It’s been a year since Harvard University President Lawrence Summers fired the verbal shot that was heard ’round the world and blew the doors off faculty clubs around the nation. At an academic conference, Summers had speculated that so few women are at the highest levels of math and science research because women don’t have the same “intrinsic aptitude” as men.
UC-Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton remembers it well because she was in the room at the time. The former dean of the college of engineering at the University of Washington, Denton had a theory about the impact of Summers’ remarks. She thought the incident might end up being a golden foot-in-mouth moment because it would spark a national discussion and spotlight the daunting challenges faced by women pursuing science careers.
It turns out she was right.
Even now, the discussion is at a fever pitch. This month Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender held a forum on women in mathematics, using Summers’ remarks as a jumping-off point. One of the central goals was to bring to light unexamined biases against women in math-science careers and discuss ways to “keep women in the biz,” as the institute’s director, Stanford Professor Londa Schiebinger, put it.
“We have to figure out why, when women are getting almost 50 percent of all bachelor degrees in math, they make up less than 10 percent of math professors,” Schiebinger told me later. “Why isn’t math an attractive profession for women who are trained in it?”
A year’s worth of similar discussions, magazine cover stories and research papers that were recirculated in the media since Summers’ salvo have put many of the reasons in the public eye. They range from subtle discrimination — including biases held by women themselves — to poor recruiting and a lack of family programs, such as high-quality day care, on university campuses.
Also, there’s the image problem of math-science careers. Too many girls and young women who are talented math students seem to assume that such careers involve sitting in a room with a computer and working on abstract problems that don’t have a vital impact on the world. Telle Whitney, director of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, understands this all too well.
Whitney was a theater major in college before she switched to engineering. “I had been a math whiz in high school, but my feeling was, `What is this good for?’” Whitney said. “More girls need to know that this can take you anywhere. One of the mathematicians at the Stanford forum talked about how her work was helping to find a cure for leukemia.”
It’s good for business
Getting more women into the highest echelons of math-science research shouldn’t be dismissed as an exercise in political correctness. It’s about the bottom line. That means creating more diverse applications, and, yes, selling more technology. Google executives have already figured this out, and that’s why they have made recruitment of women a top priority.
Nurturing talented women has to be part of our central mission to improve the nation’s lagging competitiveness in science and technology. Thanks to Summers, we’re finally addressing it, but much more needs to be done.
As Denton told me recently, “This is especially important to Silicon Valley because we have to build capacity. If we don’t include girls, half the population, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
Sue Hutchison’s column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. Contact her at email@example.com. Posted on Wednesday, February 15, 2006 in the San Jose Mercury News