Donna Dean was the first in her family to go to college. Inspired by a high school science teacher, she studied chemistry. Since getting a PhD in the field in 1974, Dean has held many jobs. She taught at Princeton University, worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was the senior science advisor for the National Institutes of Health, the center for U.S. health research. She is now a science policy advisor at a private firm that promotes the interests of research and education.
Dean is also president of the Association for Women in Science, an advocacy group she first joined as a college student. She says the educational landscape for women in science has changed dramatically since her college days. "In the 2001-2002 timeframe, women got more than 50 percent of the science and engineering bachelor's degrees," Dean notes. "Thirty years ago, women -- in some fields -- would have been less than one percent."
Women are far better represented in some fields than others, according to Joan Burelli. She's a senior analyst with the National Science Foundation and author of the foundation's biannual report on the progress women, minorities and persons with disabilities are making in science and engineering.
"They are heavily (represented) in psychology, social sciences, and biological sciences," Burelli says, "and are getting closer to half in fields like chemistry, but not in engineering, physics or computer science."
Burelli says women remain grossly under-represented in the computer science classroom, even though jobs in computer science are expected to grow more than 40 percent by 2014. "In 2004, women earned the same number of bachelors degrees in computer science that they earned in 1985, and their share of computer science bachelor's degrees dropped from 37 to 25 percent."
Even with slight gains in other fields like engineering and earth sciences, Donna Dean says degrees in science often don't translate into jobs for women. "It's not unusual to find just one women faculty member on the engineering, computer science, chemistry and physics departments of many institutions."
Social pressures and federal laws have eliminated much of the sexual harassment and discrimination women in science once faced, but hurdles remain, from childcare to self-esteem. "Women are far more likely than men to support themselves in graduate school and post doctoral work, receive less encouragement in their career and have a lower degree of self-confidence."
Dean says the United States must cultivate the scientific and technical talents of all of its citizens. She calls for increased government funding for higher education, and mentors for women who want to gain access to it. "We must give them positive reinforcement to say they can move ahead. There is no conflict at all between being a women and being a scientist."
That's the advice Dean gave Andrea Stith, 34, who earned a doctorate in physics a few years ago and now works for a non-profit medical research group. Stith says Dean has been an important advocate and sounding board, "someone that I can go to for advice and when I am ready to make my next career step."
Stith is positive about her future. She hopes her job, as grants manager of educational programs in science will lead her to design and implement such programs on the federal level.
Her mentor, Donna Dean, says Stith is on the right track. But she says women like her need more help getting high level positions in academia, government and the private sector so that the workforce more closely mirrors the demographics of the country.