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The degrees of equality

It’s no news that women have been dominating academia in the classroom for some time. Since 1979-80, women have received more bachelor’s degrees than men each year, and more master’s degrees every year since 1985-86. A recent study has shown that even some of the most male-oriented fields are being taken over. But what does this really mean for women?

More than 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the social sciences and history, biological and biomedical sciences and business fields were earned by women as of the 2003-04 school year according to “The Condition of Education 2006,” a study by the U.S. Department of Education. More than 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women in mathematics and statistics, agriculture and natural resources and physical sciences and science technologies.

“What we’re really looking at is the historical trend where women were blocked from institutional access to many kinds of institutions, especially education but also the work force, so the most recent trend you see is sort of an equalizing of historical discrimination,” women’s studies professor Sara Crawley said.

While this may appear to be entirely positive when looking at the full picture, gender bias still exists according to Crawley, who cited the abundance of women who continue to major in fields like education and health professions, such as nursing. In the former, 86.5 percent of the degrees nationwide were awarded to women (an 8.4 increase since 1979-80) while 78.5 percent were awarded in the latter (a 4.2 percent increase since 1979-80) in the 2003-04 school year.

“It’s not consistent across disciplines,” Crawley said. “It still continues to be very discipline specific.”

On the other side of the spectrum, two main areas of study continue to have significantly fewer women: computer/information sciences and engineering, with the latter having the least – only 18.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 2003-2004 nationwide.

Jerrika Rice, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, has gotten used to being in the minority in studying subjects like math and science. In high school, she said, she was one of the few women who took calculus and chemistry.

“You kind of get used to it,” Rice said. “In college, I kind of expected it. I didn’t think it to be any different because I never saw any other females.”

Rice has a theory for why the field is so male-dominated.

“I think that a lot of females are afraid that if they get into these places where they are surrounded solely by men, that they will not be able to compete,” she said. “But there’s no reason to believe that. A female engineer can be just as good as a male engineer, if not better.”

Despite the gender gap, Rice is quite comfortable studying engineering at USF.

“There are bigots in society. They are in every field and engineering is no exception, but here at USF I’ve never had that problem,” Rice said. “I always feel accepted, and I think that the majority of the females (at USF) would say the same thing.

“I would have to say that if you get to this point as a female engineer to where you’re one year to half a year from graduation, you’ve kind of gotten used to it and accepted it, but tried to make a difference at the same time,” she said.

Rice is also the president of the USF chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, which encourages younger generations to follow their passion for science and math, despite the idea that the field is widely assumed as being gender specific.

“It’s about uniting people for the common cause of extending a hand to influence the women in the science and engineering fields and the young children to say there female engineers, there are black engineers, there are Hispanic engineers, there are plenty of different engineers,” she said.

With a bit of hesitation, Rice said she doesn’t think being a woman in the field will make landing a job any more difficult.

“I don’t foresee any difficulties getting into the job field because with an engineering degree, it’s about whether or not you can do the work, most of the time – hopefully, I guess I would say,” she said.

The latest findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the abundance of degrees awarded to women do not correspond with how many women are in the work force. In 2004, only 17,665 women ages 25-64 with college degrees were employed, which is only 77.5 percent of women with degrees. 20,264 of men in the same age group were employed, which was 89.2 percent of men with degrees.

“I can say that I think attitudes toward women in the workplace have changed considerably,” Crawley said. “Would I say that discrimination has decreased? Well, that depends on what you mean by discrimination. I think it probably still is the case that many people, women and men, don’t believe that women can do certain kinds of jobs or believe that men are somehow more well suited for certain kinds of jobs – not on the basis of their merits, but on the basis of the expectation that this job is what men do and this job is what women do. That’s been a longstanding impediment for women in the workplace and in some cases for men who are interested in doing the kinds of jobs that we see as reserved for women.”

The role of women as mothers also comes into play.

“Certainly a strong and important factor is that women still tend to be primarily responsible for children,” Crawley said. “And that means in terms of physical responsibility but also financial responsibility. And, you know, if your No. 1 responsibility is taking care of little kids, you can’t spend the time in the work force that you would have the kind of flexibility that you would have to pursue the fastest track in your profession if you did not have that responsibility.”

Rice said starting a family is one thing all female engineers consider in finding and maintaining a career.

“As a female, we have the responsibility to, when we sit down for an interview, to raise those questions,” Rice said. “What will happen if in five years I decide to start a family? What type of medical plan do you have? What type of maternity leave do you have?”

Because engineering is constantly advancing technologically, Rice said many women who leave the field to raise their children go back to school in order to maintain their competitive edge.

“I think every woman thinks about it and especially every female engineer because it is something you have to consider because it’s kind of a cutthroat field.”