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Controversy Misses Important Point, Professor Says

February 18, 2005

The controversy sparked by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers’ recently reported remarks about why more women may not become engineers and scientists “is missing an important point,” says the dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

“The nation desperately needs more women and minorities in technical fields, and we should be concentrating on what we can do to encourage them to become engineers and scientists,” said Kristina M. Johnson, the first woman to head Duke’s engineering school.

“Unless we bring more women and minorities into science and engineering fields, we will not have the intellectual capital to compete in the global marketplace to address the major economic, environmental, health and security issues facing our nation in the decades ahead.”

Summers was reported to have suggested at an economic conference Jan. 14 that innate differences between the sexes may be one explanation for why fewer women succeed in math and science careers. But he said in a statement issued Jan. 17 that he does not believe that, and that his aim at the conference “was to underscore that the situation is likely the product of a variety of factors.”

One barrier to women and minorities succeeding in engineering and science “is a fundamental problem in the level of math and science competency we require of all young people in kindergarten through high school,” said Johnson, an electrical engineer with expertise in photonics and optical signal processing. “Many high schools allow students to ‘opt out’ of four years of math and science classes, but a true college preparatory education must include four years of these subjects.”

Another barrier is the critical lack of role models and support for women and minorities. “We need more women and minority students going to graduate school to provide the role models and mentors for our changing population,” Johnson said.

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