I enjoy reading David Kirkpatrick's Fast Forward columns for Fortune magazine. The latest installment arrived in my Inbox this morning and couldn't be more timely. "Is Engineering Uncool--Or Just Unappreciated" echoes what a lot of our readers have been telling us. This comment from one of Kirkpatrick's readers outlines the common theme: "Every engineer I know over 50 advises young people not to major in engineering or computer programming. In the U.S., these are bad career choices. If you look at the professions where there are alleged shortages--nursing, teaching, engineering and computer programming--they all have something in common. They are underpaid and underappreciated. Pumping up education won't do any good, if no one wants to study technology because it is a bad deal."
I agree with the comment in principle, but I think the situation is more complicated for women in technical fields. We actually have two separate problems. (Well, undoubtedly a lot more than two, but let me simplify for the sake of argument.) The first problem is that our society doesn't really value work. We seem to be much more interested in celebrity and getting rich quick. But real, productive work, say, in nursing, education, IT, is accorded no real worth, either in monetary compensation or social prestige. But for women there's a second problem, and that is that women aren't encouraged to or supported in studying math, science, and technology. And not because those areas are "prestigious," but because they're seen as not within the female "aptitudes." We're making huge mistakes on two fronts, and it would be foolish to believe we won't be paying big for them at some inevitable point.
But on a more positive note, yesterday's edition of my local newspaper carried a story that affirms for me something I've always believed--that the world changes one human being at a time. A local non-profit organization, Gender Equity in Math and Science of Colorado, Inc., held its 13th Annual Exploration Seminar at a local elementary school. About 120 fourth- and fifth-grade girls and their parents attended, listening to presentations by local professionals and participating in hands-on experiments and demonstrations. If there are 120 10-year-old girls in my little corner of the world who are interested in math and science enough to devote a Saturday to learning more about them, things must not be as black as I think. In the words of one fourth-grader: "I think it's awesome."