Measuring Progress

Woman drawing

The David & Lucille Packard Foundation just announced the winners of its 2009 Fellowship for Science and Engineering. Since we 're naturally inclined to look at things with a gendered lens, we were curious about the nature of this list and did a little poking around.

  • Of the 16 winners, it looks like 4 are women. 
  • Of these four, three seem not to be native U.S. citizens.
  • All four women seem to be doing research in multidisciplinary topics that include biochemistry, biophysics, and computational biology

There are a few matters to consider here.

Should we be happy that 25% of the winners are women, or disappointed that the percentage isn’t greater? U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that women comprise 24% of the IT workforce, and about 24% of newly hired, tenure-track computing professors are women. So this number seems par for the course, but it doesn't mean the course is satisfactory.

What should we make of the fact that three of these four women do not appear to have been raised in the U.S., and should we be glad that they at least got their graduate degrees from U.S. universities and are employed here now? Foreign-born students earn nearly 60% of all engineering degrees awarded by U.S. universities, including 62% of computer science degrees. And 80% of foreign-born PhD students indicate they would like to stay in the U.S. after they complete their degree. Training its own talent AND keeping the talent it attracts from other countries are both important steps for the U.S. to stay competitive and innovative.

Should we be pleased that nearly all the women winners are in fields that seem to integrate computing (biochemistry, biophysics, computational biology), at least to a little, or concerned that more of them aren’t focusing on “straight” computer science? Though many biological sciences fields - especially research - now require a fundamental knowledge of computing concepts, not one of these four women appears to have a degree in computer science.  Does that matter?  In the U.S. women earn half or more of all life sciences PhDs, but they earn only 19% of computer science and computer engineering PhDs.

Here's something else to consider. Awards like this one might be a useful metric in measuring technology innovation, and women's participation in innovation. Take a look at MIT Technology Review's list of 35 "2009 Young Innovators under 35", which includes 9 women: about 25%. Funding is notoriously hard to secure for young researchers and entrepreneurs whose ideas are still unproven, and the little research that exists shows that women innovators fare particularly badly: women account for 4.7% of technology patents, comprise 1.5% of open source developers, and account for less than 16% of those seeking angel capital.

Much food for thought. What do YOU think?

Need some context for these numbers? Check out some more statistics on women's participation in technology.