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Women in 2010; New White House report details areas of progress and potential

Published: Saturday, April 9 2011 11:04 p.m. MDT

Cynthia Furse, center, an engineering professor at the U., works with Jim Skowronek, left, and Nghia Dam. She bristles when she hears women say they're not good at math.

Lennie Mahler, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They make up half the people on the planet and gave birth to the other half. Yet for the last four decades, information about the well-being of women in the United States has been left to individual agencies and dedicated interest groups.

However, a new comprehensive report was recently released by the White House Council on Women and Girls — the first of its kind since a 1963 report by John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

That commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, was charged with recommending ways to overcome "discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex" and point out services that would "enable women to continue their role as wives and mothers while making a maximum contribution to the world around them."

The report found significant discrimination against women and spurred change, including the Equal Pay Act and changes to paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and non-discriminating hiring practices.

Nearly 50 years later, the new report found that women have continued to make significant strides in education and the workforce yet still lag behind men in pay and financial stability.

The information could help researchers, educators, companies, government leaders and parents as they make goals for the next 50 years.

BYU political science professor Valerie Hudson said she'd like to see a report of this magnitude every two years, because "unless you keep things continually on the table, the issue just falls off the map. ... Once you have the first one, then you can benchmark it and ask, 'Are things worse, are they better?' That kind of commentary would be really helpful to have."

The Deseret News spoke with women in Utah about the findings and how their experiences mirror or meander from the national trends.

WOMEN AND EDUCATION

Women ages 25-34 are more likely than men of that age group to have attained a college degree, reversing the norm of 40 years ago

In 2008, women accounted for 59 percent of graduate school enrollment

Women earn less than half of all bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physical sciences. In engineering and computer sciences, women earn less than 20 percent of the degrees

Ever since she was a little girl, Jessie Wirkus was fascinated by the idea that she could be a doctor of something other than medicine. Education was strongly emphasized at home, even though her mother didn't finish college and her father didn't get an advanced degree.

Wirkus eventually settled on English. She didn't want to teach in high school, so she got a bachelor's and master's degree from BYU. This semester she's teaching English at her alma mater, but in the fall, she and her husband will head out to California to begin Ph.D. programs.

"I think there's definitely been a shift in attitudes toward women in education," said Wirkus, almost 25. "We've taken baby steps from 'O h, maybe you should have an education as a back-up plan if your husband can't support you,' to more of an understanding that a woman might want an education to make her life more well-rounded, that she might be interested in those kinds of things."

Across the nation, women constitute about 57 percent of undergraduate enrollment, yet in Utah, the number drops to 51.9 percent, according to research from Utah Valley University's Women and Education Project.

"More females are attending college after high school, but they do not stay — enrollment percentages decrease slightly after the first year," according to the report.

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