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AAAS-Sponsored Workshop Says Bias Still Present in the Modern-Day S&T Workforce
As a graduate student in South Asian studies in the late 1960s through mid-1970s, Ruta Sevo saw her fair share of gender discrimination. Out of fear of being passed over for fellowships that covered research expenses for fieldwork in India, she kept her marriage to a well-funded fellow graduate student a secret.
Anecdotes abound of blatant gender discrimination in that era. And while laws prohibiting discrimination have led it to be less rampant these days, it certainly still exists but in subtle ways. "The key message is that there is a lot of social science research that provides evidence for subtle discrimination," said Sevo, who co-organized the workshop with Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity
Thirty-five participants from academia, federal agencies and non-profits attended the 19 August workshop at AAAS. The workshop updated the S&T professionals on research and issues related to discrimination in their fields. "Empirical findings are not fixed for all time," Chubin said. "They evolve." Added Sevo, "We wanted to interpret some of the concepts that rise out of the research and equip participants with the ability to cite the literature and authoritative statistics."
Some people assume that many women and minorities avoid science and engineering because they don’t like hard science or they don’t have the innate ability to pursue these fields, Sevo said. But there is ample evidence that underrepresented groups want to and can succeed in science and technology. For instance, women earn more than 50% of all bachelor's degrees and women comprise 47% of medical school graduates. Their lower participation in certain fields—including computer science and engineering—may reflect the continuing effects of stereotyping and discrimination that, while less overt than in previous times, can be just as troubling, Sevo said.
Sevo cited examples such as biased decisions on committee assignments, hostile learning and working environments, and skewed performance evaluations. Sevo, an independent consultant on women in science and engineering, called it "subtle shafting."
Industry is ahead of academia when it comes to workforce diversity, Chubin said. "They're taking it more seriously," he said. "They see it as a return on investment." Some may question whether the lack of a tenure system gives industry an advantage over academia in motivating its workers to cooperate with workforce diversity initiatives. Such is not the case, Chubin said. "Industry knows how to structure incentives better than academia," he said. "Academia only has promotion and tenure: there are very few rungs on the ladder."
While information from the workshop could be applied to many forms of discrimination, including on ethnicity and sexual preference, conversation steered heavily toward issues in gender discrimination. Participants—most of whom were women—broke into small groups to discuss challenges specific to women and jobs.
Many of the small group discussions talked about the work-life balance for women in S&T and how child care at work and time off for family obligations are important solutions for nurturing diversity in the workplace.
Small groups also discussed gender differences in salary negotiation. "Young women don’t think they can negotiate," said Marilyn Suiter, from the National Science Foundation. "They don’t know what compensation package to look for."
The workshop also had a session focused on how to conduct "climate surveys" and analyze their results. "Discrimination is more nuanced and covert now, but it can be just as insidious and can undermine collegiality," Chubin said. He said that by measuring factors like how people are evaluated and what are the expectations for their performance can help minimize discrimination, he said.
Based on the paper "Bias Literacy" co-written by Sevo and Chubin, the workshop also provided background information on laws promoting diversity in the workforce and strategies to induce innovation and change in higher education.
Learn more about discrimination in the S&T workforce.
3 September 2008