And even though female students across the country are outpacing males in enrollment, they're still lagging behind in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, math.
"Why? It's the million-dollar question," said Cynthia Furse, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah. "From the point of view of being a woman in engineering, it's the most fantastic thing you can do if you want to be able to support your family (and) contribute effectively ...(by working) a few hours at a high-paying job. Why on earth would a woman in Utah not want a degree like this?"
Sometimes the answer is one word: math.
Furse bristles when she hears women and mothers talk about how they're "not good at math."
"We'd never accept (them saying) 'I'm not good at reading,' " she said. "That would be embarrassing. Let's take that same kind of responsibility for the math and science. It's something that everybody needs to know."
She encourages parents to help their children understand math and its applications. She also wants to expose children, especially girls, to careers like engineering or computer science — areas that girls aren't often invited to consider.
"We've missed out on the opportunity of having the women's voice," she said. "And at the same time, they've missed out on the opportunity of changing the world."
WOMEN AND EMPLOYMENT
In 1948, 32 percent of the labor force was women. In 2009 it was 61 percent
In 2009, nearly one-fifth of all women were employed in just five occupations: secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers and nursing aides
At all levels of education, women earned about 75 percent as much as their male counterparts in 2009
The labor force participation of mothers with kids from 6 to 17 years old is now 77 percent; for mothers of children under 5 it is 64 percent
Twenty-eight years ago Lindy Fisher began working for Young Electric Sign Co., now YESCO, as a welder. She was the only woman.
Now, 47, she has moved her way up to become a lead estimator, but no one has taken her place in the welding area, which is still dominated by men.
"I always said I had to do everything twice as good to be half as respected," she said. "You had to stand up for yourself. You couldn't let them give you any grief. I think more of them respect you after that."
Several female Walmart employees are aiming for that same respect.
The Supreme Court is currently weighing arguments on an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Walmart for allegations of pay discrepancies between male and female employees, as well as discriminatory practices. If the Court accepts the claim as a class action suit, it would include 1.5 million current and former female Walmart employees and be the largest such claim in history.
Thirty years ago, YESCO also had zero women in the sales force, said Paul Bradley, vice president of human resources for YESCO. But now, 15 percent to 20 percent of the sales team is women.
The company still struggles to attract women to the more male-dominated aspects of their work, like manufacturing or welding, but Bradley points to Fisher as an employee who has excelled no matter where she worked.
"I think women sometimes tend to underestimate their capabilities, for example, in these manufacturing-type roles," he said. "They really can do the jobs that men have traditionally done, but they don't often put themselves out there to give it a try."
Fisher has enjoyed her various roles at YESCO and plans to stick with the company for the foreseeable future.
It's a good job, which in today's economy is essential, because, like most of her friends, Fisher works full time to pay the bills.
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