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Women catching up in science and business

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — In 1940, the U.S. Census listed 451 job descriptions and 90 percent of women fit into just 11 of those listings. Those positions ranged from nursing and clerical to domestic.

American women since have earned titles in all ranks. But the issue remains one of head count, especially in perennially male-dominated fields such as the sciences, according to Patricia Rankin, associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado.

“This has been a slow system to change because it takes so long to train scientists,” she said.

If a woman pulled back from her research to have children or spend more time rearing them, catching up to male counterparts not on a “Mommy track” detour proved difficult.

For this reason, in part, women as recently as 2002 represented just 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce and less than 20 percent of like faculty at four-year colleges and universities, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Science Foundation.

“It’s hard to figure one tipping point, the final straw that breaks somebody’s back,” Rankin said.

However, the chronic recruitment and retention issues for women at work in science inspired her to probe that question and explore ways of creating a more welcoming culture, short and long term.

Rankin’s curiosity ultimately won her a $3.5 million NSF grant, which now funds a new institutional transformation program called Leadership Education for Advancement and Promotion program or LEAP.

Though women continue steadily advancing in the life and environmental sciences, LEAP aims to help CU better address the national statistics that show flat participation in physics and the drop off in computer sciences involvement, she said. Women comprised close to 40 percent of students in computer science programs in the 1980s. Today, Rankin continued, that percentage has dropped closer to 30 percent.

“Still, there are far more women advancing at the university than 10 years ago,” she said. “There have been a few in top positions. But we’re starting to see more ... It’s no longer sort of the token women. We’ve moved beyond that.”

Women have also made great head-way in male-dominated business roles, according to Joan Winn, associate professor of management at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. They represent 37 percent of students enrolled in graduate programs at the college. Yet, many of them will not follow traditional career paths in corporate America because not every company offers key family friendly policies, she said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported women ages 25 to 34 have since 1950 more than doubled their rate of participation in the workforce — from 34 percent to 76.3 percent in 1998. Given these prime childbearing ages, women in this burgeoning demographic have needed more workplace flexibility.

They have not always gotten it, according to Terri Wanger, director of Denver University’s Suitts Center for Career Placement.

A 2002 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners by Catalyst, a nonprofit research group, reported only 7.1 percent of Fortune 500 chief financial officers were women. That figure jumped from 5.6 percent in 2000.

But the big picture also shows corporate America’s culture missing the mark in recruiting and retaining promising women executives, Winn said. That partially explains why women in recent years have launched start-up businesses at more than twice the rate of men, according to Winn.

“Working in top management for a big corporation as opposed to being the owner of your own business is the difference between renting or owning your own house,” Winn said. “There, you’re at their beck and call, and you only use the skills they need.”

Winn said, “When you’re self-employed, you call the shots and design things yourself.”

Because entrepreneurs, consultants and some positions in academia allow for both greater flexibility and creativity, she added, women will continue aggressively transforming those parts of the old man’s world.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244 Ext. 224 or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.