Despite recent gains, Hispanic women account for just 34,200, or about 1 percent, of the 3.54 million scientists and engineers employed in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Their representation in the nation’s high-tech sector is even more limited.
Experts attribute the poor showing to, among other things, cultural stereotypes and discrimination in traditionally male-dominated scientific fields.
“We have three strikes against us: being women in a male-dominated field, being Hispanic in a Caucasian world, and being Hispanic females trying to break cultural stereotypes that our own families and friends try to keep us confined to,” says Leticia Soto, Region 6 vice-president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). “It is hard when people do not ‘recall’ you for rewards or new projects, simply because they cannot pronounce your name; it keeps us from getting the recognition we deserve.”
While Hispanic women have made impressive advances in the sciences and technology over the last 20 years, their representation in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering lags far behind that of Anglo women and men in general.
According to the NSF, Hispanics earned 6,009 of the 138,703 bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering (S&E) conferred on U.S. women in 1989. Just eight years later, the number had increased to 13,222.
Moreover, the NSF estimates that Hispanic women increased their representation in the S&E labor force between 5 and 7 percent in the last decade of the 20th century.
However, they are better represented in some S&E branches than in others. In 1995, for example, there were 5,000 Hispanic women employed in the social sciences, but only 100 in mathematics and another 100 in environmental science. There were no Hispanic women working in physics. Of the 48,900 Hispanics working as engineers that year, only 8,600 were women.
NSF data indicate that between 1989 and 1997, the number of Hispanic women receiving master’s degrees in science and engineering increased from 615 to 1,306. Of those, 64.7 percent were in social sciences, 21.8 percent were in the natural sciences, and 13.5 percent were in engineering.
The number of S&E doctorates earned by Hispanic women increased from 141 in 1987 to 334 in 2000, according to the NSF. In contrast, the number of S&E doctorates awarded to U.S. Anglo women increased from 3,830 to 7,114 over the same period.
Ironically, the number of S&E doctorates awarded to Hispanic women has increased at a higher rate than that for Hispanic males, mainly because of increasing numbers of women earning Ph.D.’s in social sciences and psychology. In mathematics and computer science, Hispanic women have earned only 64 doctorates in 10 years.
In 1988, Hispanic men received 57 engineering doctorates, while Hispanic women earned only 6. The number of women earning Ph.D. degrees in engineering increased to 23 in 1997, but fell to 12 three years later.
Miriam Ojeda, a computer engineer at Xerox, says that unless more Hispanic women are made aware of the rewards of engineering training, literally thousands will be denied knowing what they’re capable of. “We need to let them know that even when the path might seem hard, the rewards are immeasurable,” she says.
“It would help if there were more Hispanic women faculty members at institutions of higher learning to serve as role models,” says Debbie Martinez, a simulation systems engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.
Tellingly, Ms. Martinez is one of only 82 Hispanic women working as scientists and engineers at NASA, the cradle of scientific achievement in aerospace research.
Hispanic women also are underrepresented in higher education. Of the 39,400 women employed as S&E faculty and researchers at universities in 1997, only 1,300 were Hispanic – accounting for just 3.3 percent of all female professors and less than 1 percent of the S&E faculty in the nation.
Of the 1,300 female Hispanics working as S&E professors in 1997, only 400 (30 percent) had tenure, compared with 41 percent of Anglo women, 55.9 percent of Hispanic men, and 67 percent of Anglo men. That year, there were only 100 Hispanic women who had achieved full professor status. The percentage of assistant professors has increased, however, suggesting that that the ranks of tenured Hispanic women professors will grow in the coming years.
Several organizations have conducted studies to explain the low representation of Hispanic women in science and technology. Despite ongoing reform efforts, most studies point to the continued existence of discrimination, misconceptions about women, lower salaries, and hostile work environments. According to the NSF, Hispanic women are paid 10 to 13 percent less, on average, than other female engineers.
“Some Hispanic women are not taken seriously by peers or supervisors. Many times it is due to their accent, which may lead to communication problems,” says Christella Chavez, a manufacturing engineer with Visteon Corp. in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Observers say that what’s needed are aggressive outreach and mentoring programs, greater cultural sensitivity on the part of established engineers and researchers, and more awareness among Hispanics about career paths that include science and engineering. What’s at stake, they say, are the technological and scientific discoveries that can only come from a multicultural research community.
“We need to be talking to parents about these careers, we need to have programs to encourage young girls to pursue engineering,” says Diana Gomez, engineer at the Office of Traffic Management, and national secretary of the SHPE National Board of Directors.
Says NASA’s Ms. Martinez: “As technology advances, the United States will need to tap into all ethnic groups if we are to continue to be on the leading edge of technology and be competitive with other countries in the 21st century.”
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