Danica Patrick will once again break gender barriers at the Indy 500 next week! But as Lisa Belkin reported in her "Life's Work" column in the New York Times on Sunday, a lot of other male-dominated professions could use a bit more estrogen. For example, women make up fewer than 10 percent of American engineers. They account for fewer than 11 percent of the highest executives in auto-related fields, fewer than 14 percent in railroads and fewer than 15 percent in mail and freight delivery. There's also a dearth of female neurosurgeons, video-game developers, furniture movers, exterminators and traders on the floor of the New York Board of Trade.
It may not seem like there's an urgent need to recruit more female representation in the extermination industry, but Belkin profiles women who say they bring an important perspective to these jobs. Case in point: A female director for sports-utility vehicles at General Motors wanted male engineers to understand how women use cars. So she asked them to take a doll out of a stroller, put it in a car sear and put the stroller inside -- all while wearing skirts, heels and press-on fingernails. (She sent one man to Payless for a pair of size 12 pumps.) "I don't think that men in the vehicle business try to ignore women's needs," Mary Sipes told Belkin. "It's just that they're different than us."
Belkin faults the enduring perception that women don't seem strong or aggressive enough for certain kinds of men's work, and offers a refutation by profiling a female horse wrangler. But the more difficult hurdle may be dealing with the "macho traditions" that make women wonder whether penetrating such male fields is a worthy endeavor. "That would help explain why there are relatively few women on Wall Street and none yet in the Oval Office," she writes. On that front, the Times' Bob Herbert wrote wrote (TimesSelect subscription required) last week that though Sen. Hillary Clinton is widely expected to win the Democratic presidential nomination, her gender could still keep her from winning the presidency. "Anyone who thinks it wont be difficult for a woman to get elected president of the United States should go home, take a nap, wake up refreshed and think again," Herbert wrote.
But a letter published Saturday begs to differ: Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a group promoting women in politics, refers to a recent Roper Public Affairs poll that her organization commissioned in the fall, which found that 92 percent of Americans are ready for a female president -- and that nearly 80 percent felt that a woman would perform as well as or better than a man in the fields of economics, foreign policy and homeland security. Wilson also pointed out that Chile, Liberia, Germany and Jamaica have elected women leaders.
While we keep our eyes on '08, let's toast all the other women quietly challenging "macho traditions" every day -- and all the groundbreaking ahead.