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Experts Meet at AAAS to Evaluate Ways to Recruit and Retain Women in S&T
AAAS has an array of resources for women in science-related education and professions, but it should use them in more innovative ways to improve recruitment, retention, and advancement of women and build global capacity in those fields, experts concluded at a high-level strategic planning meeting.
The two-day session featured several dozen influential women—and a handful of men—from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. And they came up with a menu of novel ideas to guide future AAAS efforts: Place advertorials in Science to highlight successful efforts of minority women. Solicit more papers from these women for consideration by journal editors. Develop a leadership institute for mid-career professionals and developing leaders. One suggestion called for AAAS to send women representatives to each AAAS section meeting to raise these issues with leaders in virtually every discipline of science and encourage them to spread the message and stimulate change in their respective fields.
The strategic planning meeting, hosted by the AAAS Committee on Opportunities in Science on 12-13 October, focused on how AAAS could work over the next five years to increase the number of women obtaining Ph.D.s and to help them remain and advance in STEM careers in academia, government, and industry. This international effort will include women with physical disabilities and those who are racial or ethnic minorities in their countries.
Much of the discussion was based on evidence that challenges for women in STEM fields begin early in their academic careers and continue well into their professional lives.
"In academe, women are much more reflected in the student body than in the faculty," said Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Human Resources, in her introduction to meeting participants. "It's like they get to some point and then they just get stuck."
According to a 2006 report published by The National Academies—"Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering"—the percentage of women earning science and engineering doctorates has been increasing steadily since the mid-1970s. However, women who start out on a path in academic science and engineering careers leave them at higher rates than their male colleagues at nearly every stage, from high school through full professorships.
"It is not lack of talent, but rather unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women," said Laurel L. Haak in her presentation to the group. Haak is a program officer for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, which published the report. Malcom served on the committee.
Research shows that most people carry prejudices that play a large role in their evaluations of others and their work, according to the NAS report. The most blatant recent example of these implicit biases, and one that came up often during the AAAS meeting, was a January 2005 episode involving former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. During a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce, Summers suggested that many factors outside of socialization—such as innate ability—might explain why there were more men than women in high-level science and engineering positions, outraging many people around the country and providing impetus for the NAS report and some of the current AAAS efforts.
Malcom was at that conference in 2005, as were a number of other AAAS meeting participants. During the AAAS meeting earlier this month, she recalled her reaction: "It was the strangest moment, because all of a sudden you realize that you thought a lot of things had changed and then you felt like nothing had changed.
Then, in the reactions to the incident, "it became quite clear that a lot of other people held these stereotypes," Malcom added.
Besides implicit biases, meeting participants identified a number of other factors that may contribute to the attrition rate of women in STEM fields, especially in academe: a lack of female role models; social and professional isolation; tensions between professional and personal priorities, such as child or elder care; and others. Women from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds are subject to dual discrimination and face even more barriers to success, which may explain why they are virtually absent from the nation's leading science and engineering departments.
Meeting participants split into small groups to discuss these issues in more detail and to come up with recommendations for the future direction of AAAS efforts on behalf of women in STEM fields. Their discussions and recommendations will comprise an interim report in December and will inform the second and final strategic planning meeting scheduled for February 2007. The second meeting will involve more men--a critical addition, according to meeting participants--and more champions of diversity from various scientific fields.
"The more this is presented as a national and international issue, the more headway we will make," said Daryl Chubin, program director for the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.
Chubin, a board member of the Women in Engineering Program & Advocates Network, an organization advocating institutional and national change that will result in the full participation of women in engineering, argued that the barriers to women is an issue that affects the entire world, rather than just women in STEM fields, and so must be framed as such. He also said that men are critical to these efforts and must be involved in all future discussions of increasing and retaining women in STEM fields.
As one of three men who participated in the October meeting, Chubin added: "There are a lot of enlightened men around who are engaged in these issues."
Vaughan C. Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, offered meeting participants an international strategy for AAAS. It includes enhancing relationships with science communities in key countries and regions, defining key science and technology issues at the heart of sustainability, and promoting the development of science communities globally.
Turekian's interest in issues of women in STEM fields has led him to work with this committee on a National Science Foundation-funded project promoting women's international science collaborations. Also, he described a current partnership involving AAAS, the U.S. Department of State, the Kuwaiti Association for Science and Technology, and the Kuwaiti Science Foundation. In January, these organizations are bringing together delegations of women scientists from about 20 Muslim countries to promote research collaborations and to provide support.
AAAS already has many programs in progress to address the various issues discussed at the women in STEM fields meeting. Among them is the Delta SEE program, a partnership between AAAS and Delta Sigma Theta sorority, an African-American women's service sorority. Through this program Delta chapters around the country reach out to underrepresented populations in their communities to introduce science and technology to them.
Another AAAS effort to help women in STEM fields was the 2005 publication, "Preparing Women and Minorities for the IT Workforce: The Role of Nontraditional Educational Pathways", which examined the role of nontraditional educational pathways in preparing women and underrepresented minorities for the information technology workforce. That project was sparked by the surprising fact that the number one producer of bachelor's degrees in internet technology and computer science fields in both 1996 and 1997 (the latest data available at the time the concept for this study was developed) was not MIT, the University of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, or any other research university, but Strayer University, a for-profit university.
30 October 2006