The woman in the labcoat

Edith Mulhern, The Daily Pennsylvanian

While we’re writing our resumes and worrying about how to answer tough interview questions, the government is worrying as well.America has a problem with its youth and is looking for a creative solution. The problem? According to The New York Times, not enough American students are pursuing careers in the sciences and engineering.Many of the slots are currently filled by immigrants, but most positions related to defense and industry require citizenship, or at least permanent residency. So attracting America’s young people to the sciences is essential in order to avoid a critical shortage. How does the government hope to accomplish this goal? Well, the Army and the Air Force are sending experts to … screenwriting school?The idea is that producing movies and television shows that make scientific careers appear glamorous will motivate more kids to become scientists. But will that really address why they don’t pursue science and engineering? There are a number of factors that drive kids away from the sciences, but an important one that the experts aren’t addressing is gender.There’s no shortage of female students who go to college in general. Although they accounted for only 39 percent of students in 1947, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, that number grew to 57 percent in 2000 and is expected to keep on growing. According to Penn’s Web site, 50.8 percent of all students enrolled are women.But this isn’t the case in the Engineering School, nor beyond the student body. Women self-select out of careers where they will face unreasonable barriers. There are far fewer female professors; the Higher Education Research Institute reports that only 20 percent of full professors are women, and only 43 percent of women in academia achieve tenure, compared to 63 percent of men.Of course, not every scientist wants to be a professor, but many other positions do require advanced degrees. A Ph.D. or especially an M.D. normally requires compromise on a woman’s part. Advanced degrees, like the crucial beginning stages of any career, coincide with an important point in a woman’s personal life: key child-bearing years.This problem affects women in other careers that aren’t flexible, holding them back in yet another way. Some women choose not to have children so as to avoid compromising their careers, but here too they are forced to make a compromise that is barely even an issue for men – and this is in addition to the discrepancy in salaries between men and women, even at universities.If women knew that the workplace could be reformed, in order to make it more fair and flexible, many of these women would stop self-selecting themselves out of careers in the sciences. Granted, a lab is not necessarily the most flexible workplace in the world. There are needs to be in certain physical spaces at certain times, which some other jobs don’t require. But a little modification would go a long way in the effort to bring talented, dedicated scientists into the workforce.Creating a woman- and family-friendly work environment would require significant adjustments, but they would be worth it: a more flexible work schedule to accommodate children’s school hours, job security after maternity leave and perhaps access to or assistance with day care and after-school programs would all have a positive impact on women’s careers.Such family-friendly initiatives are often neglected by employers who are unwilling to shoulder the expense they entail, but a few saved dollars won’t help when there is no one qualified to hire. If there is a crisis looming in the future for the sciences, then this sector needs to be looking to the future and fixing the holes in its system.These practical measures will go a lot farther than a little positive-image spinning in Hollywood, although good press for scientists can’t hurt. So I’d rather see a young female scientist in real life whose options aren’t limited than an attractive female scientist on the silver screen who won’t have much impact on real life. And for the men out there who are forgoing science? Hey, you could be meeting people at work.