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. 

The Athena Project afforded a glimpse into the world of STEM industries, and additional research in these sectors is urgently needed. Data collection and reporting by industry tends to pool technical with clerical and management employees, although their responsibilities and working environments clearly are different. Similarly, government agencies that work in STEM areas (e.g., the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, state wildlife agencies) do not routinely report data on their employees by gender and job classification. AWIS has found that women STEM professionals in these work sectors are highly active and vocal about their needs, yet the institutions that employ them are just beginning to collect data to assess their own cultures. 

Similarly, important organizations such as scientific societies have not necessarily absorbed lessons learned from decades of research on gender in science. AWIS currently is working with a number of such societies to help them examine their procedures for identifying recipients of awards so that women are given the recognition they deserve.  

Finally, women STEM entrepreneurs who enter into the world of business find many doors closed to them. Not surprisingly, women are noticeably underrepresented among holders of patents and as founders of technical startup companies. The uneven playing field in this arena is documented dramatically by recent studies of venture capitalists, who fund very few women-owned businesses in science and technology. 

No, our work is not done! While AWIS is heartened by the tremendous progress reported by MIT and other academic institutions (e.g., those funded by the NSF ADVANCE program), we remain committed to the ongoing tasks needed to ensure full participation by women in the STEM disciplines.

Joan M. Herbers (Herbers.4@osu.edu) is a professor at The Ohio State University and president of the Association for Women in Science.

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