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California women still lag in key categories

California women have made significant strides in recent years, obtaining college and graduate degrees at a higher rate than men, for instance, but they still lag their male counterparts when it comes to leadership roles, earning power, and proficiency in advanced science and math, a new report shows.

The analysis, released Thursday, takes a wide-ranging look at how women and girls are faring across California. It points to recent achievements in some areas but highlights continuing inequities in many others, including women's low representation in elected office, in high-paying science and technology careers, and in the top ranks of the state's major public companies.

The analysis is believed to be the first to attempt a comprehensive look at the status of California's women and girls, based on such factors as poverty, education, employment, leadership, and mental and physical health. It was produced by faculty, staff and students at Mount St. Mary's College, a Los Angeles liberal arts institution that primarily enrolls women. Researchers worked on the project for a year, compiling data from multiple sources, including the U.S. Census and various state agencies.

"As a women's college, we have a deep interest in the forces that shape women's lives," Mount St. Mary's President Ann McElaney-Johnson said. "We see it as part of our role to shine a light on the opportunities for women, and on the inequities women continue to face."

The findings in many cases echo broad trends outlined in a national report, "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," and other recent studies. Like those, it found that women have a distance to go in many areas to reach parity with men.

The report highlighted continuing gaps between the performance of boys and girls on mandated state tests in math and some areas of science, although not biology, where girls have pulled even. But the gender gap for advanced algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry has remained fairly constant in recent years, with girls tending to fall further behind as they reach more advanced math and science subjects.

The reasons for the gaps include different preparation and course-taking patterns in high school and college, said UCLA education professor Linda Sax, who studies gender differences in college students.

Other factors include self-confidence problems for many girls and continuing societal perceptions that STEM fields — as science, technology, engineering and math are known — are more welcoming or better suited to men. "You're still less likely to find parents and teachers encouraging girls to pursue these fields," Sax said.

The gaps continue into college and careers. The new report shows that although California women, like their counterparts nationwide, are now more likely to earn college — and graduate — degrees than men, far fewer women get their degrees in engineering, math or computer-related fields. The gap is greatest in computer and information sciences, with women obtaining only 14% of these degrees granted by the state's public colleges, according to 2009 data in the report.

Although STEM professions are some of the highest-paying and, according to state employment data, the most likely to grow in the coming years, women are less likely than men to go into them, the report showed.

Researchers also found that women hold relatively few elected positions at the local, state or federal levels in California. For example, although the state is the first to be represented by two women in the U.S. Senate, just 24% of its county supervisors are women and 9% of cities with populations over 30,000 have female mayors, the report showed, citing 2011 data.

And in the business world, the report found that women are sole owners of 30% of the state's businesses but represent just 3% of chief executive officers in California's top public companies.

The report's authors do note some significant achievements for women in the state. Women make up more than half the enrollment in the state's public colleges and graduate programs and graduate at higher rates than men. In recent years, they have also expanded their ownership of businesses and boosted their survival rates for cancer.

The report was inspired in part by a national report last year by the White House Council on Women and Girls and by similar efforts by women's colleges in Wisconsin and in Washington, D.C., McElaney-Johnson said. Mount St. Mary's hopes to update the report yearly. The college also plans to launch initiatives to enhance its science and math curriculum and, in partnership with Rutgers University, to help train women to run for public office.

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