Blame It on the Y Chromosome

DN Staff

April 4, 2005

3 Min Read
Blame It on the Y Chromosome

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, really made a mess of things when he tried to explain the possible reasons why more women are not represented in the fields of engineering and science. He made those remarks at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce on Jan. 14, 2005. (Read the entire transcript of his speech at http://rbi.ims.ca/4389-538.)

Two months later, The Boston Globe and other local papers are still having a field day with it.

Even Susan Hockfield, MIT's new president piled on. In an op-ed piece in The Globe on Feb. 12, 2005, she-along with the presidents of Stanford and Princeton Universities-argued that we are worrying about the wrong thing. Rather than ask, "Can women excel in math, science, and engineering?" they point out that the question we should be asking is, "How can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?" (See the entire op-ed piece at http://rbi.ims.ca/4389-539)

They make a good case for the need for more of us who lack a Y chromosome to study engineering and science. But they miss the real point, which is that we have a desperate need to encourage not just more talented women, but also more talented men to pursue a career in engineering. In fact, a report issued by the National Science Foundation in March 2004 reveals some interesting data on trends in the number of engineering degrees awarded between 1966 and 2001.

And fellas, you're the problem!

As shown in the chart at right, the number of women who received bachelor's degrees in engineering rose significantly between 1966 and the mid-1980s, when I received my BSME. Since then, the number of women has remained relatively constant, with some slight fluctuations. That's not great, of course, but where things get really interesting is when you look at the data on engineering degrees earned by men over the same period.

As is the case with their female counterparts, their ranks rose steadily through the mid-1980s. But since then, their numbers have declined steadily-so that in 2001 nearly 20,000 fewer men received bachelor's degrees than just 15 years earlier! Meanwhile, the total number of bachelor's degrees awarded in all fields increased nearly 50 percent-from 504,217 in 1985 to 721,625 in 2001.

One could say that the guys who would have studied engineering 20 years ago are now getting their degrees in computer science-but those numbers are down, too.

And we're not worried about this?

From developing alternative energy sources to coping with climate change to figuring out how to cool increasingly tiny, yet powerful computer processors, we're facing huge technological challenges that will require significant engineering talent to address.

Yet we live in a society today where it's more important to debate whether Lawrence Summers needs sensitivity training than to think about what we are going to do to save engineering from extinction in this country.

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