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Why Women Leave Science | MIT Technology Review

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The problem may be old, but it can no longer be ignored. An estimated 3,000 PhD-trained women opt out of the scientific workforce every year. At that rate, attrition isn’t just a feminist issue: it costs the United States more than a billion dollars a year and threatens our economic competitiveness:

After decades at the technological frontier, the United States now faces increasing competition from Israel, Taiwan, Finland, Ireland, and parts of the developing world. A U.S. high-tech trade surplus that reached $22.4 billion in 1990 melted into a $134.6 billion trade deficit by 2005. Meanwhile, annual U.S. productivity growth has slowed since 2000, and fewer American small businesses are being formed in every high-tech sector. These shifts are especially troubling given that economists credit new technology with half of America’s economic growth from the late 1940s to 1985.

Although decreased science funding is partly to blame, the main source of the problem appears to be a drastic decline in the number of competitive American workers and entrepreneurs in scientific and technical fields. Fewer U.S. college students pursued engineering degrees in 2005 than in 1985, despite a rising undergraduate population. In 2000, more than 20 countries had higher percentages of 24-year-olds with degrees in science and engineering. The number of Americans earning PhDs in science and engineering peaked in 1997 and then declined steadily over the next five years. Although U.S. PhDs increased between 2002 and 2005, the number of new PhDs is still nearly 6 percent lower than it was in 1997. As a result, even top U.S. high-tech firms now look abroad for talent, moving R&D and production operations to countries like India, Israel, and China. As an Intel spokesperson recently put it, “We go where the smart people are.” A 2006 Duke University survey of American firms that outsource such jobs abroad found that approximately 40 percent considered the U.S. supply of engineers inadequate.

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