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Women Network at UN Conference: No News Is Not Bad News

NEW YORK, NEW YORK--A piece of masking tape covers the men's room sign, reclaiming the bathroom for women. And justifiably so: Practically the only men at the United Nations spin-off forum on women in science and technology are the guards checking bags at the door.

Over 200 women came here from around the globe for 3 days' worth of speakers, receptions, and meetings on women and science. The gathering was organized by the Association for Women in Science ( AWIS) and held this week to coincide with the larger follow-up to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The purpose of the Beijing + 5 conference was to review progress in the past 5 years. Because science and technology were not on the official agenda, AWIS joined representatives from 190 countries and some 1200 other nongovernmental organizations in a potent demonstration of the unofficial force that drove the Beijing + 5 meeting: networking.

The talks covered little new ground. We've heard about leaky pipelines and the importance of mentors before. We know the economic and human rights arguments for women's equal inclusion in science and technology. But is the situation for women in science appreciably better than it was 5 years ago?

"It's not as good as we'd like, but better than it was," said panel moderator Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources at AAAS (publisher of Next Wave). Indira Nair, vice provost for education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, fielded repeated questions about Carnegie's success in retaining women in their undergraduate computer science programs. Although the conference included no hard analysis or action plan, it did provide a forum to make connections, find encouragement, and share frustrations.

At a moderated discussion, Jennifer Sly, a former math major studying international affairs at Columbia University, talked about how shocked she was by the discrimination she saw not in school but in the workplace. And her former employer--a Fortune 500 company--received awards for their women-friendly policies, Sly said. Later at a reception, several women offered support and shared their own stories. Former Department of Energy science director Martha Krebs and Sly talked about challenges women face and how they moved from science to science policy. "That's why I come to these things," Sly said. "The chance to hear about how other women made it ... it's the juice that keeps me going."

Sometimes women just need to create a space of their own.

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