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Test tubes, Bunson burners and periodic tables captivated Linda Anderson-Mauser as a student at Penn High School in the early 1970s. However, as she was preparing to graduate, a guidance counselor told her the only way she could pursue a career in science was to become a teacher.
"The world, thank goodness, has changed a great deal since then," said Anderson-Mauser, now head of the antibody and protein group at the Bayer facility in Elkhart.
Women no longer have to rely solely on careers in the classroom, but they are still not a dominant factor in the science and engineering fields. How fragile their status is in these traditionally male professions was underscored earlier this year when Harvard University president Larry Summers publicly questioned if women were genetically capable of understanding complicated mathematical calculations or scientific formulas.
While others engaged in heated debate over Summers' comments, women's place on the lab bench remained secure because they bring what has been described as a different perspective to math and science.
For business, looking at things differently and processing information differently can result in a healthier bottom line.
"Women have more purchasing power in the market so not having women involved in the design is not a good business decision," explained Catherine Pieronek, director of the women's engineering program at the University of Notre Dame.
In the marketplace, Whirlpool Corp. found that women were making 80 percent of the purchase decisions when choosing household appliances.
Consequently, according to Steve Duthie, Whirlpool media relations manager, the company, with manufacturing facilities and regional headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich., started the Women's Network in the late 1990s with the primary purpose of recruiting women into all parts of the company and promoting them through the ranks.
Whirlpool may be finding more female faces in engineering programs at American universities but that is probably because the number of women in engineering classrooms has remained stable over the last 16 years while the total number of graduating engineers dropped more than 78 percent.
Citing national statistics, Pieronek said 11,200 women graduated from engineering schools in 1985 compared with 11,900 in 2001.
Overall the engineering class of 1985 numbered 75,000 while the class of 2001 dropped to 59,000 members.
Nationally the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that job opportunities for engineers will "grow more slowly than average" but for chemists and material scientists will "grow about as fast as average" through 2012.
The department notes that many jobs in chemistry require graduate degrees.
A physics major at Goshen College, Teresa Bartal is one of only two female students in the department. She said she and her female colleague are accepted by their male peers, which makes her secure that being female will not limit her options for a scientific career.
"I don't know what I want to do, but whatever I do, I know my gender won't hold me back," she said.
Getting students interested in science careers begins long before they arrive on campus. Patsy Boehler, executive director of Ethos, a nonprofit organization to promote science education in schools, advocated teaching science as a hands-on activity in the elementary and junior high schools.
"Science has got to be taught differently in order to be able to retain what they learn," Boehler said. "I just think if more girls were involved in hands-on science in the elementary schools, the interest would be there."
At Notre Dame, retention of women engineering students improved with a simple change in curriculum.
According to Pieronek, only 41 percent of the women stayed in the engineering program going from their freshmen to sophomore years during the 2001-2002 school year. This compared to 62 percent of the men staying in the program.
Pieronek said the professors discovered that the women students were being "scared off" by a computer programming class in the first semester of the freshman year. By moving the class to the second semester, thus allowing women to build some confidence in the first semester, a whopping 69 percent of the female engineering students stayed for their sophomore year during the 2002-2003 school year. The curriculum change also caused a slight bump to 65 percent in the retention of male undergraduates.
Not only do women scientists and engineers bring a different perspective and different thought process, they also bring more of a team atmosphere to the workplace. Boehler said lots of women in scientific fields want to share and mentor rather than chase money and titles.
Such attitudes can be helpful in a laboratory where days are often longer than eight hours, patience is mandatory and failure is guaranteed.
Still, just seeing more women in the science and engineering labs comes almost as a relief for Pieronek. "From my perspective," she said, "I don't care why it's happening, just that it is happening."