Research & Innovation

Dr. Yu Tao Researches Gender and Ethnicity in Science and Technology

Dr. Yu Tao, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Sociology) in the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology, conducts research in gender and ethnicity with real-world implications for America's future as a technological and scientific leader. Her most recent paper is "Multiple Disadvantages? The Earnings of Asian Women Computer Scientists in the Unites States," which was published in the International Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology. As the United States acts on President Barack Obama's call to strengthen Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education as a vital means of preparing the nation to compete in the 21st century, Dr. Tao's research reveals the imperatives of policy reform.

"This research is timely because this is an increasingly global world, and almost every nation is competing for engineering and science talent," Dr. Tao says. "Tapping the untapped potential of women and racial/ethnic minorities would be a long-term solution to this problem."

After graduating from Georgia Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in Sociology of Science and Technology in 2009, Dr. Tao came to Stevens College of Arts and Letters, where she found her academic focus was perfectly suited to the College's mission of analyzing the impact and implications of science and technology within the framework of the humanities and the social sciences. Her most recent paper extends her doctoral research of gender and ethnicity in STEM fields, an area that has long fascinated her.

Dr. Tao examines the earnings of an under-researched group: Asian women in Computer Science in the Unites States. Dr. Tao found that Asian women do not earn a significantly lower amount than a white woman in the field of computer science. However, female computer scientists as a whole earn less than men.

"Usually when we talk about minority women, we talk about the concept of 'double jeopardy' or multiple disadvantages they suffer from both race and gender," Dr. Tao says. "In this study, I found that this is not really the case." Asian women earn less than white and Asian men, but they do not suffer an additional disadvantage from their ethnicity. Rather, Asian and white female computer scientists in the United States suffer about the same disadvantage.

Computer Science is not the only field to face such difficulties, notes Dr. Tao. "There are a number of barriers, not necessarily overt, but covert, for women in engineering and other fields," she explains.

The key is to overcome those barriers so that females, who score an almost negligible amount lower on standardized STEM testing as compared to males, are not discriminated against in their chosen area. The National Science Board's study, Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, found that about half of Science and Engineering bachelor's engineers since 2000 have been earned by women. However, major variations persist in specific fields. In fact, in 2007, women comprised only 19 percent of all Engineering bachelor's degrees, 19 percent of all Computer Science degrees, and 21 percent of all Physics degrees. The percentages of women among doctoral degree recipients and faculty members in these particular fields are even lower, although slowly increasing over time. Dr. Tao believes that to equalize the percentage, institutions must examine the barriers that prevent women from studying and staying in particular fields.

"The root cause is institutional. It's not about individuals," Dr. Tao says, adding that the problem extends worldwide.

For example, explains Dr. Tao, "Engineering is male-dominated. A lot of professors, when they teach engineering, use an approach that does not appeal to girls. In many engineering classes, professors focus on individual work, not group work. Girls are socialized to do group work. They are raised to collaborate with others, and they feel more comfortable working with others."

However, Tao notes, "A lot of professors in engineering are very encouraging, as they understand the barriers that women experience."

She emphasizes that Stevens is setting a positive example for the inclusion of women in STEM. "Stevens is doing well. The number of women among Stevens students has been increasing. It's always improving." In December 2010, Forbes magazine ranked Stevens among the top 20 best colleges for women and minorities in STEM.

Dr. Tao has two forthcoming studies. One is an analysis of the marital status of women doctorate recipients in Science and Engineering in the U.S. The other analyzes the personal and institutional characteristics that affect Engineering doctorate recipients on their decision to enter academia upon graduation, as opposed to industry or post-doctoral research, for example.

As she continues her research into gender equality in STEM fields, she remains positive that steps are being made. "These are historical problems," she says, "but a lot of universities and some non-profit organizations are doing something to change the current scenario."