Science Professions Examined

By J.R. Sirkin — January 29, 1986 2 min read

Declines in the college-age population between now and 1995 make it “especially important” for the nation to remove barriers that keep women and minorities from entering the scientific and engineering professions.

So says a new study by the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan Congressional agency, which found that women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in the “quantitative” professions.

The study is particularly critical Of the National Science Foundation, which it says has failed to take a leadership role in expanding programs that would increase minority representation.

Shortage Overstated

According to the study, the nation will probably not suffer a shortage of scientists and engineers in the next decade, despite a projected decline in the number of 18 to 24 year-olds. Market forces, including the knowledge of a potential shortage, may well attract a greater percentage of students to science and engineering training, the study says.

“Given the problems with forecasting supply and demand for scientists and engineers, predictions of shortages based on such forecasts should be treated with considerable skepticism,” the study says. “It is entirely possible that the supply of people trained in science and engineering will not decline at all.”

But demographic trends do suggest that the demand for faculty members with degrees in science I and engineering fields will decrease.

And the trends “underline the importance of promoting equality of access ... for women and minorities,” the study adds.

Equal Access

Women scientists and engineers suffer from “differential treatment,” the study reports, including salaries J that are “significantly lower than men’s in almost all fields of science, in every employment sector, and at all comparable levels of experience.”

Perhaps as a result, women’s attrition rates from scientific and engineering careers are “50 percent higher than men’s and their unemployment rates are more than double,” the report states.

Women are also discouraged from becoming scientists and engineers as a result of “gender-stereotyped career expectations,” the report says.

Low Participation

Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians receive degrees in science and engineering “at less than half the rate of whites,” the study found, reflecting both lower participation in higher education and a lower rate of selecting quantitative fields of study.

“Well-designed intervention programs” could boost these groups’ participation in science and engineering, the study asserts, but such programs have “not been rigorously and systematically evaluated to determine the ingredients of success and failure,” and the more successful ones have thus not been expanded.

“The National Science Foundation was mandated by Congress to take a leadership role in this area, but thus far it has not done so,” according to the report.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week