Bryn Mawr College chose to organize this symposium for a number of reasons. It has always been the mission of this College — and this hearkens back to the early days of M. Carey Thomas and to her debates with the President of Harvard — to challenge young women to excel in all fields of study. Although I am a scholar of the humanities, educated first in a women’s college and indeed quite prejudiced about the continuing importance of the humanities, it is clear to me that today and in today’s world, one of the truly distinctive contributions of Bryn Mawr and of other women’s colleges is in the areas of science and mathematics.

With our particular focus on the education of women, these institutions have done an exceptional job of preparing students for advanced education or careers in science, engineering and technology. In addition to high expectations, women’s colleges offer their students multiple examples of women who have succeeded in science. I am so proud to say we have a wonderful cohort of women faculty members in our science departments, in our laboratories and among our graduates. As a result, an unusually high proportion of our students major in science and mathematics, and they go on to pursue advanced degrees in these fields at high rates as well. Our record demonstrates that women can be engaged in science, counter to arguments that women are underrepresented because they are not interested or do not like it. At Bryn Mawr, women certainly do like it, and we move our students forward in science in substantial numbers and with great success.

While we are justly proud of these facts, they highlight the degree to which girls and young women in general do not pursue these fields. In college, where women are in the majority, potential female scientists and engineers continue to be underrepresented, and in some fields the situation is getting worse. The figures in computer science, for example, are particularly troubling. In 1984 when the field was relatively new, women earned 37 percent of undergraduate degrees. By 1999 the number had dropped to less than 20 percent. This very problematic development was recently cited by Dr. Rita Colwell, National Science Foundation Director, as a cause for particular concern. As a community of educators we need to do more to improve this situation and must concern ourselves with both ends of the pipeline.

We are, of course, concerned about the careers of our graduates, and in that regard, the status of women in the science, engineering and technology workplace also must improve. Even with the bursting of the high-tech balloon, there is little question that this arena will be central to the future growth of the American economy, indeed the global economy.

According to a recent report by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology (2000), leaders in many fields are warning of a critical shortage of skilled American workers in these areas. The report pointed out that this shortage is due in large part to a national failure to give much of our population — women and minorities in particular — appropriate educational opportunities and encouragement in science, engineering and technology, and a similar failure to bring them into the workforce, and to retain them. The United States cannot afford to disregard the talent and potential contributions of women, half our population, in science and technology. Although there has been progress in many areas over the past 30 years, it is still the norm to find us underrepresented.

You know better than I that there is no single or simple solution to these problems. Indeed most of you have been thinking about them much longer than I have. I hope the Proceedings of this conference can enrich our understanding of the continuous and interrelated worlds of the classroom and the workplace, and explore some possible ways we might proceed individually, institutionally and collectively to improve the situation.

Nancy J. Vickers
President, Bryn Mawr College

Back to Index