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Women in science and technology: Beyond the numbers

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When Harvard University President Larry Summers recently observed that women are underrepresented in math and science at top universities and attributed this disparity to innate gender differences, his remarks prompted a justified outrage from academic institutions and women leaders nationwide. Summers’ comments reminded professional and academic women that gender equality has not yet been won and continuing efforts toward this goal are essential.

Summers soon issued an apology stating that he “do[es] not believe that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science.” Summers’ apology confirms the fundamental premise of equal ability but does not solve the problem of unequal representation in scientific fields.

There are some positive trends regarding women in scientific careers, with corporations leading the way toward closing the gender gap. In 2002, women represented 38.2 percent of the total workforce in the natural sciences, an increase of over 16 percent from 1983. One factor contributing to this increase is the growing number of women in leadership positions who pave the way for future generations.

Other reports suggest that little improvement is being made in academics. A recent Newsweek article reported that many women opt out of scientific graduate programs due to an unwelcoming environment. Noting the disparity between corporations and academic institutions, a study by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology concluded that women are more likely to enter scientific fields in corporate America than in academia.

The legal community has been recognized as a relatively welcoming environment for women. A new study by the National Association for Law Placement Research reports that women account for 43 percent of associates, staff attorneys and senior attorneys at law firms. The number of female partners in major national law firms is substantially lower, however, at approximately 17 percent.

One of the most notable legal publications, The American Lawyer Magazine, includes a commitment to diversity as one of four key criteria used to evaluate law firms. The A-List’s attention to diversity reflects growing recognition that maintaining a diverse workforce is necessary to succeed.

Heller Ehrman LLP was recently ranked Number 2 in The American Lawyers 2004 A-List of Top 20 Law Firms nationwide. Heller Ehrman’s commitment to diversity and the advancement of women is apparent from their diversity program for summer associates and the Women’s Initiative Committee, which focuses on issues unique to female attorneys and provides role models for female associates.

Female attorneys with strong backgrounds in science and technology play important roles throughout Heller Ehrman. Currently, women comprise 27 percent of attorneys who specialize in the Life Sciences Practice and women make up one-third of Heller Ehrman’s Intellectual Property Transactions, Intellectual Property Litigation and Patent & Trademarks Practice Groups.

Heller Ehrman is also making strides on the shareholder front with female shareholders currently accounting for 18 percent of the firm. Forty-four percent of Heller Ehrman’s shareholder class in 2004 and 20 percent of the new shareholders in 2005 were women. Of the newly appointed female shareholders at Heller Ehrman in 2005, two-thirds of these women work in intellectual property or with high-tech and life science companies. Science provides a fertile field for female professional growth and Heller Ehrman is proud to promote women in science and the law.

Summers may have unintentionally rekindled the debate about women and science, but fortunately he is taking advantage of the situation to promote the advancement of women in science. Following his widely-publicized comments, Summers implemented a women’s task force to research possible reasons why women are not achieving tenure at the same rate as men. Initial results are expected by the end of the 2005 spring semester.

Locally, Athena’s Pinnacle Scholar-ships contribute significantly to the entry of talented women into the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. This year, Athena’s Century Club is providing additional funds to compensate for the rising cost of college tuition. Athena has also established a FlexMBA scholarship, providing full funding for an individual managing or creating a science or technology driven company to attend the UCSD Rady School of Management.

We are encouraged that this continued debate is leading to new programs that encourage women to pursue careers in science and technology, and we salute Athena for providing mentoring opportunities and social support for women scaling the barriers in the way to gender equality.

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