AAAS President Alice S. Huang Urges Universities to Deepen Commitment to Women and Minorities

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Universities must work systematically, from the president’s office to faculty members and students, to make the campus climate more welcoming and supportive of woman and minorities, said AAAS President Alice S. Huang.

In remarks at the AAAS Caribbean Division’s 25th anniversary celebration, the accomplished virologist and educator said that the climate on campus is directly linked to the broader climate for U.S. innovation. Unless the United States can expand its pool of future scientists and engineers, she said, the nation may falter in an increasingly competitive global economy.

AAAS President Alice S. Huang
AAAS President Alice S. Huang

Huang noted that many in the audience had long records of supporting diversity in education. But, she said: “Your work needs to continue to focus on attracting the best and the brightest, no matter what their background is, or their economic situation, or whether they’re male or female, gay or straight. It is important that we use all the brainpower that we can muster in order to maximize the contribution to science, to development, and to progress.”

Huang has long been an influential advocate for women and minorities in science-related fields, and at the Caribbean Division’s anniversary banquet, she carried that message to an audience that included past and current officers of the division, scholars, and students. She mixed a statistical assessment of the status of minorities and women with stories of her own experience before offering prescriptions for further progress.

The Caribbean Division currently includes more than 580 AAAS members from throughout Puerto Rico, Central America, the islands of the Caribbean Basin, Venezuela, and Southern Mexico. Since its founding in 1985, the division’s annual conference has explored an array of issues—neuroscience and the interface of science and human rights were on the program this year—but it has maintained an ongoing focus on science education.

Jorge Colón, president of AAAS Caribbean Division
Jorge Colón, president of AAAS Caribbean Division

“The Caribbean Division, since it’s founding, has recognized the importance of building diversity in science and engineering,” said division President Jorge Colón, a research professor of inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras. “To support that goal, we’ve maintained close relations with schools, teachers and students in our region. And so we found Dr. Huang’s talk very inspiring and encouraging.

“She stressed the importance and convenience of having educational management with sensibility to minorities and gender issues, and how to nurture students and young professors that are members of those groups to help them excel. We totally agree and hope to take her message to science teachers and professors in our educational system both at the secondary and higher education levels.”

This year, the Caribbean Division meeting expanded from its usual one-day format to two days, with sessions at the Río Piedras campus geared to professionals, educators, and students from elementary grades to the university level.

Since earning her Ph.D at Johns Hopkins in 1966, Huang has come to occupy an influential position at the juncture of research, education, and diplomacy. [See an earlier profile of Dr. Huang.]

She spent 20 years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School; from 1979 to 1990, she also directed the Laboratories of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital in Boston. She was appointed dean of science at New York University in 1991, and in 1997 moved west to serve as senior counselor for external relations at Caltech. Today, she’s a senior faculty associate in biology there.

She is a past president of the American Society for Microbiology, and served from 2004-2009 on the California Council on Science and Technology. She also has consulted on science policy for government agencies in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. She served on the AAAS Board of Directors from 1997 to 2001 and began a term as president last February.

Statistics Tell a Troubling Story

AAAS has a long record of studying the issue of women and minorities in science and engineering and in promoting their recruitment and retention in education and the workforce. Huang’s presentation to the Caribbean Division was based in part on data assembled by Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Huang acknowledged much progress in bringing women into science and engineering since she first entered the field. But, she said, participation in science-related fields by women and minorities historically has been low, and since the 1990s, “there has been a marked decrease in interest” among students generally.

Those factors limit the pool of talent available to drive innovation, she said, and innovation will be critical in addressing problems confronting the United States and the world.

Huang cited figures from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) showing that the percentage of under-represented minorities receiving Ph.Ds in the life sciences more than doubled between 1977 and 2006, but still comprised only 6.7% of the total. In engineering, the percentage nearly doubled, but still was only 2.7% of the total. In computer sciences, meanwhile, the number fell from 6.5% in 1977 to 1.5% in 2006.

Women now earn more than half of total Ph.Ds in the United States—and 52% in the life sciences—but many of those Ph.Ds are concentrated in the humanities, education, and the social sciences. She said a study of 2006 data found that women earned “drastically below” half of Ph.Ds in other fields—only 28% in physical sciences and 20% in engineering.

Another CPST study showed that the higher the degree level, the lower the proportion of women and under-represented minorities.

“We’ve actually had marvelous changes in society in the past 20 years or so,” Huang told the audience. “There has been much more acceptance of women… but there is still a great deal that needs to be done. We’re not there yet—and we’re losing out on a lot of individuals who could contribute.”

What is the source of the problem? At colleges and universities, Huang said, the cultural climate is crucial. “Many women have said that, yes, by choice, they have not wanted to go into physics or mathematics because the climate is so chilly,” she said. “Therefore, the change has to come to make it much more welcoming of women and minorities in these areas.”

Enlightened Reform: A Case Study

As a case study in successful reform, Huang offered Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In the 1990s, school leaders realized that the enrollment of women in their computer science program was plunging. They made practical changes in admissions standards that enlarged the pool without diminishing student quality. They stepped up outreach. They adjusted the way that faculty taught a required course in algorithms, stressing its practical relevance and value. And they recruited a well-known, retired computer science professor from California and asked her to take the lead in creating a supportive community for women students.

In ensuing years, a women’s advisory committee in computer sciences has created a “Big Sister/Little Sister” program for undergraduates and initiated a speaker series and professional development workshops, not to mention social events.

The result: The community of women in computer sciences is so strong at Carnegie Mellon that even undergraduate women join in efforts to recruit new students.

Commitment at Every Level

Huang suggested that the success at Carnegie Mellon offers an important lesson: To change the climate in higher education requires a systematic, institutional commitment, one that involves every level of the university community.

The university president must recognize institutional problems and commit to solving them within a set time frame, Huang said. The president holds deans and department chairs accountable for hiring and promotion decisions, while taking steps to monitor progress and raise funds to support the goal.

Huang recounted a pertinent story: “The president of one university came to me once and said, ‘You know, I just can’t seem to get more women to come here [to study in science-related fields]. Maybe we’re too technical.’ I said: ‘Let me look at the brochures you hand out at high school recruitments.’

“He handed me several different brochures—they had beautiful pictures of the campus, beautiful pictures of the students and teachers. But there was no female face on any of them. If I saw that brochure, I would say: ‘They never see women, they never present women, so why would I want to go there?’”

The school has new brochures and its enrollment of women has improved, Huang said.

“The president has a huge responsibility,” she said, “and it has become obvious that without leadership at the very top of an institution, there’s not going to be major change. It is the president who must lead in changing the climate.”

Provosts and deans must coordinate resources and the application of best practices that are needed to change the climate. They must provide incentives that support the goals, and hold department chairs accountable for hiring, promotion, and salary decisions.

Department chairs have a crucial role in changing the climate, as Huang sees it. Through hiring, salary decisions, mentoring, and communication, they have enormous influence in building and sustaining a community.

When they commit to fair and transparent hiring and promotion decisions, or when they provide programmatic support or make faculty aware of emerging opportunities, they send a message about the value placed on the presence of women and minorities—and it drives a positive change in the climate.

Mentors must take care to refine their roles, Huang suggested. In the current campus climate, many see themselves as gatekeepers for a particular field or profession.

“Instead of thinking that we need to weed the garden,” she said, “we have to think of cultivating the garden.”

It’s important for the mentor to understand social and cultural differences, Huang said, and she credited officials at the University of Puerto Rico for success in supporting a diverse student enrollment in the sciences.

“I like the word empower,” she added. “It’s your faith and your belief in the young person that will give them the knowledge and self-confidence that they need in order to succeed.”

Women and minorities themselves have a central role in creating a more positive climate, Huang told the audience. She urged them to engage deeply in their studies and their work—to seek out mentors, join professional associations, and promote their own work.

Continuing Challenges, Constructive Responses

Huang acknowledged that women and minorities face continuing challenges, ranging from legal restrictions and cultural forces that oppose diversity to resistance from entrenched powers. “Probably the worst,” she said, “is a somewhat benign neglect, the belief that everything is fine and that we don’t need to change whatsoever.”

She encouraged everyone in the room to work personally to counter those challenges, committing themselves to change and working within their spheres to shape a climate that supports and thrives on diversity.

Even when retired or out of power, she said, people must lead by example. Women and minorities themselves must avoid the trap of discrediting work by other women and minorities. And at every level, and every community within the university culture, people must “never tolerate the casual discrediting or minimizing of contributions or accomplishments made by women and minorities,” Huang said.

“We all know that minorities and women work a lot harder to get where they are now. We have to make sure that the bar is not set higher for them than for white males.”

One way to counteract those obstacles, Huang suggested, is to rise above them through commitment and passion.

“You have to be sure that you’re in a field that you’re passionate about,” she said. “I was told, when I was very young—‘You know, there aren’t a lot of women in science, but if you love what you’re doing, it’s really worth it… And if you love something, you will do well in it.’”


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View the slides from AAAS President Alice S. Huang’s presentation.

Learn more about the AAAS Caribbean Division and the AAAS divisions for the Pacific, Arctic, and Rocky Mountain/Southwest regions.