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Accessing All Technological Talent

EmTech speakers say the U.S. must support female and minority technologists or risk falling behind.
September 25, 2007

Universities and institutions still need to make efforts to improve the climate for women in the fields of science and technology, according to the keynote presentation at this morning’s Women in Technology workshop at the Emerging Technologies Conference. MIT president Susan Hockfield and chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau both expressed concern that ideas are being lost because women and minority populations aren’t finding ways to get their ideas heard. Hockfield said, in surprisingly military language, “The innovation army can’t afford to lose the willing or the able from any gender, race, or ethnicity.”

Birgeneau was dean of the School of Science at MIT in 1994, when biologist Nancy Hopkins came to him with concerns about the problems faced by women in academia. Today, Birgeneau said that Hopkins was among a group of 15 out of 16 female senior faculty members of the School of Science who confronted him. As the women detailed their experiences with discrimination, he said, he realized that, while he would have dismissed concerns from one or two of them, the problem must be systemic, given their numbers. The women presented evidence that they had lower salaries and smaller lab spaces.

Although both Hockfield and Birgeneau said that much progress has been made since then, Birgeneau pointed out that out of the top 50 computer-science departments in the United States, only Texas A&M has women of color as high-level faculty members.

In order to reverse the situation, Birgeneau stressed the need to improve services like child care. He said that his daughter, who is on the faculty of Boston University and the mother of three children, faces child-care issues whenever she wants to attend technical conferences. Other areas of concern include providing funding for female graduate students and postdoctoral workers who need to take maternity leave. “I think family-friendly policies are critical,” Birgeneau said.

Birgeneau believes that the United States needs the work of a wider range of technologists in order to maintain an edge in the global market. “Clearly, the consequences of not acting will be detrimental to the nation’s competitiveness,” he said.

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