Advocating for equity in STEM

Nearly 200 women and a few men arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, last fall for an event called Expanding Potential: A Workshop on Navigating the Hurdles Faced by Women in STEM Fields. The all-day workshop, co-organized by the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences at Berkeley, offered informational sessions, panels and a speed-networking session, all with the intent of opening the discussion about systemic issues that women face and promoting career development. Here we’ve collected some of the best pieces of advice and most compelling insights from speakers and attendees.

Implicit bias: Anne MacLachlan, a senior researcher with UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, defined implicit bias as a combination of unconscious beliefs that govern our attitudes and behavior toward others. If someone says something discriminatory, she said, you should ask him or her to repeat it. This allows that person to reflect on his or her language, thereby focusing on how the comment may come across with an unintended negative connotation. This removes the blame and turns the focus away from the person who received the statement and instead makes the assailant take responsibility for his or her poor choice of words.

Imposter syndrome: Maria Padilla from UC Berkeley’s Office of Harassment and Discrimination said most people with impostor syndrome are successful, but they feel like frauds or that they don’t belong. The climate of the workplace and the fear that you are in a program or lab only to meet a demographic quota are two factors. This presentation sparked discussion between undergraduates and higher-level STEM attendees on how to employ effective approaches to cope with impostor syndrome, confirming the age-old advice that peer support is key to retention.

Beyond teachable moments: Julia Chang, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, bristled at the idea that victims of discrimination should turn those incidents into teachable moments. “(I) felt like individuals were being evaluated on how well they are able to turn these micro- and macro-aggressions into teachable moments, rather than strategize about policies that would hold the people in positions of power — the ones likely to hold and state discriminating views — accountable to do better.” This criticism highlights a topic brought up several times during the workshop about the age difference between some of the speakers and attendees. Younger women are less accepting of the norms for dealing with micro- and macro-aggressions, which suggests that a positive shift is taking place in the STEM landscape toward standing up for one’s right to fair treatment.

Handling harassment: Both MacLachlan and Padilla recommended seeking out institutional offices that handle harassment and becoming familiar with harassment policies. For example, Title IX is not exclusive to sports and can be used as a basis to fight harassment that occurs in the workplace. Seek out individuals at your host institution who specialize in enforcing these laws to fight against unlawful behavior.

Negotiation is expected: Alan Sachs of Life Technologies insisted that “it is expected that you negotiate” when you’re up for a new job. “What’s not expected is that you will take the first offer and say nothing.” Remember, he added, that a counteroffer can extend beyond your salary to include various “intangibles,” including stock options, moving costs, vacation time, bonuses and so forth. Sachs insisted that people not be afraid to negotiate, because once a company makes an offer it is unlikely to retract it. After all, he said, the worst that it will do is say no.

Learn more about the inaugural Expanding Potential workshop and watch videos of the speakers.

Shaila Kotadia Shaila Kotadia is the education and outreach manager.

Sabriya N. Rosemond Sabriya N. Rosemond is the diversity fellow for the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center. Both co-organized the Expanding Potential workshop.