It's already back-to-school time for many kids. As they again stuff their hefty backpacks, here's what won't be in enough of them: science, technology, engineering and math books. Girls, especially, will not be weighted down by those texts, and that's a problem for those girls and for the country.
To compete in the world economy and preserve the lifestyle Americans expect, the nation needs innovative and scientifically savvy workers. And if girls want their paychecks to come close to those of the boys in their classrooms, they need to study those so-called STEM subjects.
Early this month, the Commerce Department issued a report showing that women who work in fields such as computer science and engineering have more employment security and higher incomes — 33 percent higher — than women in other jobs. In STEM jobs, the gender pay gap shrinks markedly; women make almost as much as men do. But, even though a majority of college graduates are women and they're almost half of the workforce, women hold only about a quarter of the positions in these lucrative fields. That number has stayed steady over the last 10 years, even as educated women have marched into the workplace in greater numbers.
It's not just that women aren't in the jobs — they aren't taking the courses that lead to the jobs. According to the Commerce Department: "Women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering." That helps explain why this country is facing a critical shortage of engineering graduates, especially when compared to the numbers that universities in China and India are turning out.
"This education disparity," Intel CEO Paul Otellini recently wrote, "threatens to slow our economic recovery, stunts our long-term competitiveness and leaves technology firms in a skills crisis."
Intel is working with other corporations and the Obama administration to try to boost the number of teachers in STEM fields. Upward of a quarter of a million more will be needed by 2015 in secondary schools alone, and they need to be teachers who can find ways to engage girls. Too often girls, who enjoy science and math in elementary school in equal numbers to boys, are turned off in middle school and have checked out by high school, where five times as many boys as girls say they want to major in engineering.
Some extracurricular organizations are trying to fill in where the schools fail. The Girl Scouts, for example, don't just train cookie entrepreneurs. The scouts also participate in scientific fun, from Lego Leagues to programs sponsored by Lockheed Martin and NASA aimed at inspiring girls to study STEM subjects.
That's something astronaut and physicist Sally Ride has also been trying to do through her camps for kids and science academies for teachers. Ride is fighting what she says is the message sent by society: "Girls think science and engineering are not for them, and, of course, we know that's not the case."
Sally Ride is the product of the nation's last great scientific push: the space program. It took the Cold War and the 1957 Soviet Sputnik launch to energize action then. The next year, Congress ponied up a billion dollars — a whole lot of money in 1958 — for science and math teaching at all levels of education. And when TV cameras started showing men in cool space suits rocketing into orbit, kids signed up for science courses.
It took awhile for women to horn in on the act. More than 20 years elapsed between Alan Shepard blasting into space as the first American and Sally Ride stepping into the shuttle as the first U.S. woman to soar above us. But women occupy a different place in America today. Not only are more than half our college graduates female, close to two-thirds of our graduate students are women.
We can't prosper as a country if those students have heard "science and engineering are not for them." And if you question whether they still hear that message in the 21st century, you just have to remember that Larry Summers, when he was president of Harvard, glibly declared in 2005 that "issues of intrinsic aptitude" separated men and women in the hard sciences.
If Intel and other technology companies want more American engineers, they're going to have to tackle that blatant bias. It harms not only the women who are missing out on the higher pay and greater job security they would find in scientific and technological fields. It also harms America.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.