Perhaps where the U.S. has really lost its edge, though, is not in producing “smart people” but in keeping them in science and technology. More American women are pursuing higher education than ever before: female college enrollment began to overtake male college enrollment in the 1980s, and by 2003 women were earning nearly 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Not only that, but female students earn higher grades and win more awards than their male counterparts, according to a 2006 study by the Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank. By 2000, women were earning more bachelor’s degrees than men in the category of science and engineering.
Within this category, however, women are gravitating toward the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and shying away from engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences–the very fields with the greatest demand for workers and the biggest economic payoffs. In 2005, women earned 68 percent of the PhDs in psychology, 57 percent of the PhDs in anthropology, 62 percent of the PhDs in sociology, and 49 percent of the PhDs in the biological sciences, but only 27 percent of those in mathematics and statistics, 27 percent of those in the physical sciences, 20 percent of those in computer science, and 18 percent of those in engineering. In engineering and computer science, the percentage of female students has plateaued or even dropped in the last decade.
To make matters worse, many of the female PhDs who enter scientific fields leave soon after they begin working. A 1995 survey of Americans with PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics found that single men and single women with PhDs participate about equally in the scientific workforce. But a married female PhD is 11 percent less likely to work full time than a married male PhD. If the woman is married with young children, then she is 25 percent less likely to be fully employed in science or technology than a married man with young children. This gap is clearly evident at American four-year institutions, where in 2003 women made up only 41 percent of assistant professors, 31 percent of associate professors, and 18 percent of full professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
When scientists leave the workforce, they take with them thousands of hours of education and experience, often paid for by taxes. Conservative estimates suggest that in the scientific fields, a newly minted PhD represents approximately $500,000 worth of training. Multiplying that figure by the estimated 3,000 PhD-trained women who leave the workforce every year results in a loss of approximately $1.5 billion per year–about one-quarterthe National Science Foundation’s annual budget!
The Pressures on Women
For both male and female scientists, marriage and family create demands that can cut short thriving careers. But women who want to have families simply do not have time to establish their careers before having children. It takes about seven years to earn a PhD in science or engineering, often followed by several years of postdoctoral research, and then another six years of work as an assistant professor before a scientist can earn tenure. As a result, research scientists at the relatively secure rank of associate professor are usually well into their 30s, the age at which a woman’s chances of bearing a healthy child begin to decline alarmingly. Men do not face the same biological constraints and can afford to wait to become fathers–or they can marry women who are willing to put parenthood ahead of career ambitions.