Congress OKs tech gender gap study

The Senate passes a bill already approved by the House that aims to set up a commission to study the dearth of women in science and technology.

3 min read
Congress is creating a commission to study whether women face a "silicon ceiling" when trying to get--and keep--the most lucrative jobs in the high-tech and science industries.

Last night the Senate passed Rep. Constance Morella's (R-Maryland) legislation to create an 11-member Commission on Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development to determine whether employers recruit, promote, pay, and retain women at the same rate as their male counterparts. It will then issue recommendations to government, academia, and the corporate sector.

The House passed the bill last month and it now awaits President Clinton's signature.

Morella's $1 million study also will focus on minorities and people with disabilities, and is being pushed at time when the nation's technology sector claims to be starved for skilled employees.

After much lobbying by the high-tech industry, the House last week increased the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed into the country to work for high-tech and other industries, and the Senate is expected to pass the bill.

But Morella and other lawmakers want to know why more women aren't filling these top jobs. The commission is charged with uncovering gaps in education. The study also will address what happens to women who enter the workforce: whether they are mentored and climb the ranks at the same level as men with equivalent experience.

Other studies already have established that these inequalities exist, so the commission will likely devote more time to uncovering the reasons why and hammering out solutions.

"By addressing the barriers that face women and minority scientists and engineers, Congress has taken action to help to ensure that our labor force is ready for the information age and that our high-tech economy continues to flourish in the 21st century," Rep. Morella said in a statement.

The number of women who received bachelors degrees in computer science has steadily decreased from 37.1 percent in 1984 to 28.4 percent 1994, according to the Education Department. Moreover, the National Science Foundation's most recent statistics show that in 1995 women comprised only 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce. And their median annual salary was $42,000---about 20 percent less than the $52,000 their male counterparts were paid.

The commission will include seven representatives from U.S. companies and four individuals from academic institutions appointed by the National Governors' Association.

Although some notable women have been pioneers in the computer and Net industries, others who have more quietly broken down the barriers in education and the workplace say the study will validate what they have known all along.

"A study has the opportunity to give people information so the right actions can be taken," said Valerie Hoecke, vice president of operations at Fire Engine Red, a Web design company in San Francisco, who majored in history but segued into technology while working as an administrative assistant at a Unix magazine in 1993.

"When I was a kid I had this concept I was terrible at math even though I got good grades," she said. "Women are culturally steered away from technology and the sciences and toward other careers.

"It's true that there is a lot of great opportunity for women, the problem is women don't think they have the skills to succeed in these fields. Sometimes they don't, and as a result they don't move in career areas that are lucrative," Hoecke added.