June 2011

A major step forward, with many more ahead


While women in STEM disciplines have made progress, there still is much work to be done. 

As president of the Association for Women in Science, I was very pleased to read the recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that documented dramatic progress in the status of women faculty members. The science and engineering faculties there include nearly twice as many women as they had when their first report was released in 1999. This increased representation of women has been the result of sustained, concerted effort to diversify the faculties, and we applaud MIT for taking a leadership role in this important arena. 

"Faculty diversity at leading research institutions tells only part of the story about how women fare in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM disciplines)." 

The report, which generated substantial coverage in the press, emphasizes that the impressive demographic gains for women faculty do not necessarily imply gender equity. I especially appreciate this cautionary note in the report, because at AWIS, we know that the work is not done!

Faculty diversity at leading research institutions tells only part of the story about how women fare in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM disciplines). Such institutions play a lead role in training future STEM professionals, and the educational environments for undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are known to be influenced by faculty diversity. As students proceed through their training, they can experience both subtle and overt sexism from some faculty and fellow students, as detailed in the MIT report. Furthermore, access to positions of authority and power within academic institutions are not as readily available to women as they are to men. 

We now know a fair amount about the status of women faculty at research institutions, thanks in part to grants funded for that purpose by the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program; we also understand the pivotal role that small liberal arts colleges play in promoting women’s full participation in STEM. We know far less about the environment for women at under-studied institutions, such as smaller regional campuses and community colleges. Our members who work and study in these institutions are passionate about tackling issues of gender equity but have few studies to guide their efforts. 

We applaud MIT for the courage it has shown by examining its data, and AWIS certainly hopes additional academic institutions will follow MIT’s lead. Even more, we encourage other kinds of institutions to think about their own environments and cultures. Because AWIS is a national organization that supports women working in all STEM disciplines and all work sectors, we know that the progress toward gender equity in academic environments like MIT simply is not paralleled in government labs, industry and other work sectors. Our members tell us that after leaving college and grad school, they are shocked to find workplaces structured to disadvantage women. 


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