Women Scientists: The Times They Are A-Changin'

You can be a woman engineer. In fact, you can be a woman cardiologist, a woman zoologist and a woman architect, too. The possibilities are endless. OK, if you're a man, there might be a problem

Apr 6, 2000 at 2:06 pm

You can be a woman engineer. In fact, you can be a woman cardiologist, a woman zoologist and a woman architect, too. The possibilities are endless.

OK, if you're a man, there might be a problem. But the possibilities are nearly endless, and Judith Love Cohen is spreading the word.

Cohen is the author of a series of books encouraging girls between the ages of 8 and 14 to pursue careers in technical fields. There are 12 illustrated titles in the You Can Be a Woman... series, each of which concentrates on a professional female who has succeeded in a male-dominated field. The books, written in the first person, describe the qualities necessary for working in certain fields (Egyptologist, marine biologist, etc.) and aspects of what each job entails.

There are so few female professionals in technical and scientific positions, said Cohen, because, "a lot of girls just don't think it's something they should be doing." But this is something she's determined to change.

Cohen is amply qualified to champion such a cause. In the 1950s, when information networks were still in their infancy, she was studying computers and control systems. She went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, later working on the Hubble Space Telescope and numerous other NASA communication projects. Among her accomplishments, Cohen was responsible for designing the back-up guidance system that allowed the astronauts of the failed Apollo 13 mission to return safely to Earth.

Despite attaining great heights in her discipline, Cohen was disheartened by the numbers of women entering fields such as engineering, physics and chemistry. She was one of only eight women in a 1957 graduating class of 800 students.

"I never saw any of them," she said.

The lack of women in the so-called hard sciences was a result of the social attitudes at the time more than any lack of ability to perform adequately, Cohen said. Last year, according to the National Science Foundation, 50 percent of people employed in the social sciences were women. Likewise, numbers of women in life sciences such as biology had risen but only to 20 percent. The hard sciences such as physics and engineering still boasted a scant 6 percent female employees.

"Let's face it," Cohen said, "selling weapons systems to the Army isn't women's work."

Cohen was spurred into action in 1991 when her husband David Katz, a substitute teacher in Los Angeles, suggested she write about her experiences. You Can Be a Woman Engineer was the result; written by Cohen, illustrated by Katz and published by their independent company, the Cascade Pass Press, it proved extremely popular. Other titles in the series were quick to follow.

Nearly 10 years later, Cascade Pass has sold more than 85,000 copies of the You Can Be a Woman... series. Some titles are available in both English and Spanish, and all can be purchased online from the company's Web site (www.cascadepass.com). Some of the earlier books have also been converted to a CD-ROM format that incorporates music and animation into the narrative.

Despite the titles, the series is popular with boys as well.

"The boys right away feel at home because they understand the content," Cohen said.

And with two new titles coming in the spring, she's satisfied that girls no longer need to feel limited in their choice of career.

"I made a difference," she said. "I changed things, but it's a little too late for me. I'm 66."

YOU CAN BE A WOMAN... books by Jane Love Cohen will be read and discussed at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday at Borders Books and Music in Eastgate. Future paleontologists, marine biologists and weapons systems salespersons of both sexes, all ages and every stripe are welcome to attend.