American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


NSF Report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science & Engineering


The National Science Foundation recently released its 1996 report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. This report covers education issues from elementary achievement test scores to numbers of Ph.D. recipients, as well as professional employment trends. The report has been produced biennially since 1982, allowing the results to be viewed in a historical context that illustrates the progress made in that time frame.

Although women, minorities, and persons with disabilities have made great progress integrating the science world, a disparity still exists in their representation in the science community. In every ethnic group, women still comprise a lower percentage of science and engineering students and professionals than men. These gaps grow larger with age and prominent career positions. Women and men start out with similar standardized test scores and interest in science and math in elementary school. As students reach high school, males score slightly better on science achievement tests, but math scores remain virtually identical. Once they reach college, women are 10% less likely to choose a science or engineering major and much less likely to obtain a Ph.D. Women comprise 30% of science and engineering Ph.D. candidates, which is an increase of 5% since 1983.

Women now comprise 22% of the science and engineering workforce, but they are still not achieving the elevated positions long dominated by men. Women are more likely to be employed in academia than industry, although women are less likely to be full professors and more likely than men to be part-time instructors. In industry, women are less likely to be managers. Most of the difference in rank, however, is alleviated when comparisons are made across age groups.

All minorities, except Asians, are underrepresented in science and engineering, but much change has occurred in the past decade. The number of blacks and Hispanic taking high school chemistry and physics has doubled since 1982. Even with the increased course offerings, however, minority scores on math and science achievement tests have not significantly increased, casting doubt on the quality of courses offered to minorities. Furthermore, minorities still lag behind the number of white students taking advanced placement science course.

Although more minority students are choosing science and engineering majors than a decade ago, some colleges educate a disproportionately large share of undergraduate minority students. For example, approximately thirty percent of black students receive their undergraduate degrees and Ph.D. in science and engineering from historically black colleges and universities. Hispanics and American Indians also tend to earn their degrees in areas where they form a large percentage of the population and are no longer a minority. Like women, minorities are more likely to be employed in academia than business and industry. They are also less likely to be full professors, and more likely to be assistant professors, part-time professors, and teach at two-year colleges.

Twenty percent of the population has some form of physical or mental disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Data on persons with disabilities is limited, however, by the fact it is primarily self- reported, and inconsistent definitions are used. Although the disabled are equally likely to choose a science major in undergraduate education, they are less likely to earn an advanced degree, and in 1993 only 329 earned a Ph.D., less than 1% of the total recipients. Unlike women and minorities, persons with disabilities are not concentrated in certain fields, such as academia or industry. This difference exists predominantly because half of the science and engineering disabled population became disabled after the age of 35, once they were established in their field.

While women and minorities have greatly increased their participation in science and engineering, much work still needs to be done. The stereotype of women and minorities having poor abilities in science and math still exists, creating negative impacts for students. Research described in the report by Claude M. Steele indicates that when students are asked about their race or sex before taking a test, scores differed widely between white males and women and minorities. However, when students were simply given the same test, scores were about equal. By realizing that stereotypes can cause students to live up to low expectations, these "predicaments can be treated, intervened upon... and this analysis offers hope, and some early evidence, that solutions to these problems may be closer than we think."


Source: National Science Foundation

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Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.
Uploaded February 10, 1997

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