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Question: Why are women so underrepresented in engineering? 

Jill Tarter: I don’t have a lot of female colleagues. It’s getting better. That is the good news. The gradient is in the right direction. It isn’t yet 50/50 or it isn’t yet really representative of the intellectual capacity of our planet. I think engineering is probably the least represented with a female population and I’m not quite sure why that is, because engineering problems are phenomenally interesting and challenging, and it’s a creative profession. So I think it’s a shame. If women ran the world, different things would be engineered and invented. And I think it is a shame that we don’t take more advantage of them, but as I said, it’s getting better and it has to get better with young men as well as young women. I think one of the real challenges is if you’re a woman in science, engineering, mathematics field you’re overwhelmingly likely to be married to someone else in that kind of a field, right? Because those are the people you meet. You’re an underrepresented population. The folks that you meet, your male colleagues are likely to be your spouses. Then we have a problem, what we call the two-body problem, finding suitable positions, two jobs for one couple in the same area. That is a real challenge and we still have a tradition in this country where it’s more likely that if one of the two professionals ends up sacrificing a position or taking a lesser position it’s more likely to be the women. Got to change that. Of course it’s much easier to be creative in terms of jobs and making opportunities when the economy is doing very well. It’s much harder in a tight economy such as we have now, but we need to be creative. Women hold up half of the sky. How can we not involve them? 

Question: Have you faced any challenges as a woman in science? 

Jill Tarter: When I was getting my engineering degree, I was the only woman in a class of 300 guys and that had a lot of challenges. I had a nuclear physics course where I was asked to leave the room the day that they discussed health hazards of nuclear reactors and sterility for my male colleagues. I don’t know. It wasn’t appropriate for a woman to sit in the classroom and discuss. As if I, as a woman, wouldn’t have had any health issues if I had gone into that field, sort of silly. A lot of other things, but you know that was then and somehow I had enough stubbornness to make it through and I’m incredibly fortunate to have a career as a scientist and be able to blend my long-ago engineering training with what I’ve learned about the natural universe to try and craft a better search program looking for signs of someone else’s technology. It’s really a privilege to be a scientist. First of all, you never have to grow up. You never have to stop asking why. You get to pose your own questions and try and find your own answers and you get to do something tomorrow that you couldn’t do last week or last month. You get to learn new things almost every day. You get to learn something new about something and, gosh, that’s a real privilege. I like to tell young people that being a scientist is very much like solving mysteries. We’re actually trying to be the first person to understand something. Other people may have worked on it, but there are problems that don’t yet have answers and we could be the first ones to figure something out.

Recorded on June 3, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

Why Aren't There More Women...

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