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Hard Science

Source: Corpus Christi Caller Times, October 3, 1996
By Ellen Bernstein

Enrollment in engineering, computer classes slow as women return to traditional roles, educators say.

Recent minority gains run counter to an overall slowdown of women pursuing nontraditional careers, educators say.

Hispanic women are late-comers to the women's movement, says a university professor.

High schools must encourage female students to take more advanced math and science classes, college educators say.

Elaine Guerrera says she lacks role models in her chosen field of engineering. The 22-year-old senior at Texas A&M University-Kingsville says that, at times, her career path feels "uncomfortable" because so few "Hispanic women are progressing" in the field.

Recent minority gains, educators say, run counter to an overall slowdown in the numbers of women pursuing nontraditional occupations.

Today, women earn 55 percent of all bachelor's degrees but only 16.5 percent of engineering degrees and 18 percent of physics degrees. Women received only 29 percent of the undergraduate degrees in computer science in 1994, down from 37 percent in 1985. Economics saw a similar, though less dramatic, decline.

At A&M-Kingsville, nine percent of the graduates -- 20 of 206 -- of the College of Engineering between July 1993 and June 1995 were women, according to Jorge Kimball, assistant to the dean of engineering and director of women and minority engineering at A&M-Kingsville.

Female enrollment has increased slowly since 1990, Kimball said. About 18 percent of the 1994 enrollment in the engineering program is female, compared to 14 percent in 1990, Kimball said.

Minority women, compared to anglo women, are relative latecomers to fields that have been traditionally dominated by men, said Richard Tapia, a Rice University mathematics professor who heads an outreach and minority education program at the Houston university.

"Last year Hispanic women outnumbered men in graduate degrees at Rice and the same thing is happening in science, engineering, and mathematics," Tapia said. "The women's movement which has been very strong in the 1970s has finally been bought by the Latino women."

In the 1970s and early 1980s, women undergraduates, fired up by feminism and a new sense of entitlement, made business their No. 1 choice for a major, supplanting education. During the same time period, biology and other life sciences surged ahead of English in popularity among female students.

The initial surge, say educators, was based on pent-up demand -- the easy progress, so to speak, after barriers were lowered for women in the 1970s. Now, following the usual pattern of social change, there is a period of consolidation as women -- and men -- come up against more subtle obstacles.

"Gender stereotyping is much stronger and longer-lived than most people believe," said Susan Bailey, director of the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women. "Girls and boys get subtle messages about what is an appropriate choice of a major career."

"There are certainly a lot more opportunities for women than in the early-1960s," said Jerry A. Jacobs, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who has studied the patterns. "But things are far from equal, and there hasn't been as much progress as people were expecting."

Traditional stereotypes have led women into nurturing fields such as teaching or nursing, said Melissa Fulton, 19, an A&M-Kingsville chemical engineering major who was encouraged by her parents to study science. "Math and science intimidate a lot of women into thinking that men are better than women at logic."

The plateau troubles researchers because it is occurring even as educators nationwide focus unprecedented attention on encouraging girls and young women to consider careers in the sciences and engineering.

Students have their own ideas about the trend. Elizabeth Navario, a sophomore at Boston University, is leaning toward a major in law or psychology, areas where women earned 57 percent and 73 percent of the degrees, respectively, in 1994, up from 4 percent and 41 percent in 1966.

"Twenty years ago, women may have chosen certain fields to prove a point -- that women could excel. Now people are just doing what they want to do," she said.

Tapia said that women, particularly Anglo women, may be falling back on traditional roles. "All of a sudden women are starting to question: 'Maybe I don't want to go on to grad school. Maybe I do want to be more traditional.' On the other hand, today's minority woman is trying to take advantage of being independent, maybe not falling into the same patterns as their mothers and grandmothers."

Ruby Zenon, a Boston University sophomore working toward a degree in aerospace engineering, sees sexism at work. "Sometimes guys in the lab make gibes about women and their mental capabilities," she said. "I insult them right back and I don't let them demoralize me."

At Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the proportion of women earning bachelor's degrees in biology has increased from 15 percent in 1991-92 to 62 percent in 1995-96. Women represent 40 percent -- or 15 of the 38 master's degree earners -- in environmental science since May 1993.

Women's gains in the biological sciences have not been matched in computer science, particularly at A&M-Corpus Christi. About 30 percent of the undergraduate degree earners at A&M-Corpus Christi are women. Nationwide, women received only 29 percent of the undergraduate degrees in computer science in 1994, down from 37 percent in 1985.

At a computer networking class at Del Mar College, four out of 15 students are female. Ericka Morin, a 24-year-old student, said that men predominate in her class because women have little exposure to LAN technology -- hardware that enables computers to share information. Women are more involved in software that produces documents and spreadsheets -- tools often used by secretaries, she said.

Most of the researchers discount the likelihood of genetic differences, pointing to Ecuador and parts of Eastern Europe where women constitute a larger percentage of engineers, for example.

But they believe that the availability of jobs may play a small role, with change slowing in some fields, such as economics and physics, as the market tightens.

Fundamentally, educators suggest, the onus lies with our education system. A number of disciplines and institutions have begun work to change a climate that may be off-putting to women -- to emphasize cooperative learning, to provide mentors, to use materials that relate as much to women's as to men's experiences, and to reach out to girls as early as elementary school. But as yet, there has been little impact nationally.

The changes, however, are evident at A&M-Kingsville where engineering students now solve design problems in teams. Research shows that women are more comfortable working together as opposed to independently, Kimball said.

Kimball said that high schools must encourage female students to take more advanced math and science classes. "If you don't take advanced math or science it may take five to seven years to get out of college, which is extremely expensive," Kimball said.

The Sloan Foundation in New York offers grants to encourage colleges to make sweeping changes in curriculum and support programs, but says relatively few colleges nationally have taken such steps.

To jump-start the process of change, Jacobs suggests researchers may also need to focus on making traditionally female fields, such as teaching, more attractive to men.

None of the researchers advocates a rigid goal of 50 percent women in every discipline, but they hope for more parity.

"What we need to aim for when students are selecting majors is that they feel all fields are equally open to them," said Bailey. "I don't think that's true for women or men."

The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

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