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March 10, 2008
Volume 86, Number 10
pp. 67-71

Radical Changes For U.S. Science

Over two decades, women and noncitizens have been eroding the male domination of U.S. science

Michael Heylin

The extensive compilation of data in the recently released 2008 version of the National Science Board's biennial "Science and Engineering Indicators" (S&EI) report quantifies the continued strong growth in the number of students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities with degrees in the sciences.

The report also updates the dramatic ongoing shifts in the makeup of science graduating classes by both gender and citizenship. Most of the data are from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the National Science Foundation.

According to the report, the number of natural science graduates in 2005 was substantially higher than it was in 1985 at all degree levels—up by 31% for bachelor's degrees, 69% for master's degrees, and 57% for Ph.D.s.

As an example of the demographic changes, the percentage of doctoral natural science graduates who are male U.S. citizens dropped from 53% of the 1985 class to 31% of the 2005 class. Female U.S. citizens moved up from 20% to 25%, and doctoral graduates that are either not U.S. citizens or are of unknown citizenship rose from 27% to 44%.

Although the number of new Ph.D. graduates in the natural sciences increased from 10,200 in 1985 to 15,900 in 2005, a gain of 5,700, the number of graduates who are male U.S. citizens fell by 400. The number who are female U.S. citizens rose by 1,900, and the number not identified as U.S. citizens rose by 4,200.

The pattern is similar for Ph.D. chemistry graduates. Although total graduates grew by 290, or 16%, between 1985 and 2005 from 1,836 to 2,126, the number who are male U.S. citizens fell sharply from 1,084 in 1985 to 719 in 2005. This decline was more than made up for by gains of 151 for female U.S. citizens, 294 for male noncitizens, and 210 for female noncitizens. These changes reduced male U.S. citizens from 59% of the 1985 class to 34% of the 2005 class.

Foreigners are not a big factor at the bachelor's level. They earned about 4% of the science and engineering degrees in both 1985 and 2005. They are a huge factor at the Ph.D. level, however, with 30% of science and engineering degrees in 1985 and 46% in 2005. Master's degrees fall in between, with 19% of 1985 graduates and 28% of the 2005 graduates not identified as U.S. citizens.

The number of bachelor's degrees in all disciplines—science and nonscience—earned by men rose from 487,000 in 1985 to 608,000 in 2005 for a gain of 25%. The number earned by women rose much more, from 504,000 to 829,000, a gain of 64%. This means that women accounted for 73% of the increase over the 20-year period. This boosted them from 51% of the 1985 class to 58% of the 2005 class.

Similarly, women earned 56% of the 2005 bachelor's degrees in all sciences. This was up from 46% in the 1985 class. Women accounted for 72% of the 1985 to 2005 increase. In chemistry, they earned 53% of 2005 bachelor's degrees. This was up from 36% in the 1985 class. They posted a substantial, 3,900 to 5,100, gain over the period, whereas male graduates slipped from 6,800 to 4,800.

Another sign of the continuing strong role of women in science is the breakdown of freshmen intending to major in a science or engineering field. Of such 2005 freshmen, 47% were women. This was up from 39% in 1985.

All of the shifts for both bachelor's and higher degrees have come on a relatively level demographic playing field. In 1985, there were 21.3 million 20 to 24 year olds and 41.7 million 25 to 34 year olds in the U.S. In 2005, there were essentially the same number of 20 to 24 year olds, 21.1 million, and just 4% fewer 25 to 34 year olds, 40.1 million.

Gains for women have been almost as impressive at the master's degree level. Between 1985 and 2005 their share of master's degree graduates rose from 40% to 53% for all science degrees, 32% to 41% for the natural sciences, 33% to 49% for chemistry, and 48% to 60% for the biosciences.

At the doctoral level, in addition to the gains in the natural sciences and chemistry, women increased their share of bioscience doctorates from 33% in 1985 to 49% in 2005 and their share of all science doctorates from 31% to 45%.

The full impact of the increasing numbers of women and those not identified as U.S. citizens is realized in the breakdown of doctoral graduates in the natural sciences. Of such 1985 graduates, 53% were male U.S. citizens, 20% were female U.S. citizens, and 27% were not U.S. citizens—22% male and 5% female. For 2005, male U.S. citizens were down to 31% and female U.S. citizens were up to 25%. Those not identified as U.S. citizens rose to 44%—28% male, 16% female.

In 2005, all women—citizens plus others—earned 49% of bioscience doctorates, 41% of natural science doctorates, and 34% of chemistry doctorates. These levels were up from 33%, 25%, and 20%, respectively, in 1985.

Women also posted solid gains in disciplines in which they are not likely in the near future to approach numerical equality with men. In engineering, their proportion grew from 6% of the 1985 doctoral class to 18% of the 2005 class, and they accounted for 30% of the 1985 to 2005 increase. The corresponding data for mathematics show an increase for women. They went from 15% of the 1985 class to 27% of the 2005 class, and they accounted for 43% of the 1985 to 2005 gain. Even in the male bastion of physics, women earned 15% of the 2005 doctorates, up from 9% in 1985.

Graduate enrollments in science and engineering signal no imminent slackening of the upsurge by women. In 2005, 49% of all such enrollments were women. This includes 54% of those in the natural sciences, 56% of those in the biosciences, and 40% of those in chemistry, as well as a substantial 22% of those in engineering and 29% of those in chemical engineering.

For science and engineering postdocs, the big shift has been in the number who are foreign. In 1985, there were almost 8,900 foreign postdocs, or 40% of the total. By 2005, there were almost 27,000, or 55% of the total. Of 2005 physical science postdocs, 64% were foreign, as were 59% of bioscience postdocs and 66% of engineering postdocs.

Although not reported in S&EI, women have also made big gains in professional fields. According to NCES, men earned almost 11,200 M.D.s in 1985, and women, almost 4,900, or 30% of all M.D.s earned. By 2005, men were down to 8,150, and women, up to just more than 7,300, or 47%. The trend is similar for legal degrees, with men earning just about 23,000 LL.B.s or J.D.s in both 1985 and 2005 and women moving up from 14,400, or 38%, in 1985 to more than 21,100 in 2005, or 49%.

The perturbations in the makeup of the student body in the U.S. do not mask its overall growth. According to data in S&EI, total enrollment in higher education has risen from 12.7 million in 1985 to 16.9 million in 2005, a 33% increase. And graduate enrollment over the period is up by 44% for science and engineering, 50% for all sciences, 31% for the physical sciences, and 15% for chemistry.

In 2004, 39% of 25- to 34-year-old U.S. residents held at least an associate's degree. This was up from 30% in 1991. This gain enabled the U.S. to keep pace in an increasingly competitive world. The medians of this measure for 22 nations with data for both years presented in S&EI rose from 21% to 36% during the same period. Topping the list in 2004 were Canada at 53%; Japan, 52%; South Korea, 49%; Sweden, 42%; and Belgium, 41%.

In terms of the number of first university degrees in science and engineering in 2004 or the most recent year, China has moved up to the top spot with 672,000, with the U.S. second at 456,000. India and South Korea have moved into the top 10, occupying the fifth and sixth spots, respectively.

The data on college graduations and enrollments presented in S&EI indicate that without the great infusion of American women and foreigners during the past two decades or so, science, and especially chemistry, in the U.S. would be in dire straits today.

Data in S&EI confirm that fewer and fewer young American males—in either absolute or relative terms—are taking up science and other fields that males have dominated since their inception.

The sustained and impressive advances of women in almost every field documented by S&EI give little comfort to those who may still cling to the premise that women as a group lack the intellect to be successful in the sciences—as well as in engineering and other pursuits they choose to regard as manly.

Full recognition and reward for women in chemistry, science, and other fields may be slow in coming. Men, at least partly due to their seniority, still hold most of the high ground. For instance, according to the American Chemical Society's annual salary and employment survey of its members, male Ph.D. chemists in the workforce are, on average, about seven years older than their female colleagues.

Women today are earning advanced degrees in science and professional degrees in larger and even majority numbers. Although the rate of academic gain for women relative to men will likely slow in coming years from the torrid pace of the past couple of decades, women are into science, other disciplines, and the professions not just to stay, but to advance and to prosper.

Earned Science & Engineering Degrees

Earned Doctoral Degrees By Gender and Citizenship

Science & Engineering Graduate Enrollment By Gender

Science & Engineering Post-Docs

Degrees Worldwide

First University Degree Graduates

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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