Less than 20 percent of engineering and computer science positions are held by women. Sue Rosser, the provost and academic vice president at San Francisco State University, visited Sonoma State yesterday and gave some insight into why women are underrepresented in science and health fields and how it affects the rest of the population.
Rosser is considered nationwide to be an expert, and has written 13 books and more than 130 journalistic articles.
The lecture was free and was attended by Sonoma State students, faculty, and the general public. It was sponsored by 19 campus organizations, which included Associated Student Productions and the Center for Community Engagement.
The lecture was followed by a discussion led by Margaret Anderson of the SSU Hutchins Dialogue Center, which allowed students to talk about the lecture and how to make progressive steps towards a more equal workplace.
Rosser spoke about a wide range of issues facing women and minorities in the fields of science, technology and health. She began with a few statistics regarding the proportion of women in various fields of study; over half of those with a career in biology are women, while chemistry has 40 percent women, with math and physics even lower. Computer science and engineering have the smallest percentage of women.
“I had no idea that women were so underrepresented in such vital fields,” said freshman Ariana Dulberg.
Rosser had four main topics of discussion during the lecture. She began with the issue of exclusion of females as experimental and design subjects; she explained how not including women in drug trials has a large effect on the drugs’ success. By leaving out half of the population, researchers are putting people in danger.
“It is the difference between life and death,” said Rosser.
She also gave an example regarding the first airbags; they were designed by men, but when they were installed in cars they often killed children and small women. Rosser pointed out that if there had been a woman on the team that created the airbag design, maybe this would have been avoided.
Rosser stressed that it is crucial to have a wide range of viewpoints and diversity for innovation to excel. She explained that the lack of women in scientific and technological fields creates a bias that is often unconscious and that the unbalanced proportion of men to women reflects a masculine view of the world.
Her second point was that gender inequality affects the choice and definition of the problems to be studied. She stated that those in power generally get to choose what is researched. In the United States, the government is the deciding body because they provide funds for researchers.
However, the government is mostly made up of white, wealthy, middle aged, heterosexual men. Rosser argued that these people in power unintentionally push their personal agenda on the scientific community. By choosing to fund projects that are important to them, they are steering research in a way that might not benefit the rest of the country.
Next, she mentioned problems with the current system of data gathering. The demographics for research do not accurately represent the population. They often ignore women, as well as men of ethnicities other than Caucasian. It is impossible to gather accurate data when only doing research on white men.
Theories and conclusions are also affected by unconscious gender bias. Researchers unknowingly make conclusions in order to perpetuate the status quo.
“They are OK with mainstream theories,” said Rosser.
Rosser said that people conducting the research may try to be neutral, but true neutrality is impossible. Some of their ideologies and beliefs will influence the drawing of conclusions, and when the only people making conclusions come from the same demographic, there is no one to mention another point of view.
Rosser said that having diversity in science is vital to new innovations and better solutions to problems. Complete equality may seem ideal, however, there can be too much of a good thing. When a field exceeds a 35 percent population of women, it tends experience a phenomena called feminization. When feminization occurs there is usually a drop in salaries and status of the career.
Equality has been an ongoing issue in the United States for decades. Although there are many laws in place to prevent discrimination it is still prevalent in the work world.
“We have come a long way but there is still work to be done,” said Rosser.