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Gender Summit 6: Mentors Needed to Boost Women’s Participation in Science and Innovation

Arlene Cole-Rhodes, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Morgan State University, knew about the barriers that women and minorities in the United States face when it comes to participating in the sciences. But she said it was still "eye-opening" to learn about the global scope of these challenges at GS6 Gender Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

"For me, it was a very good experience to have this exposure to a group of people who are trying to change policy, and it was good to hear the different solutions that were being proposed to solve the problem," Cole-Rhodes said. "It helped me come to the realization that this low participation of women in STEM is something that affects the global workforce, and it must be urgently addressed."

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AAAS President Geri Richmond delivers the keynote address at the GS6 meeting.| Gender Summit 6 Asia-Pacific

Cole-Rhodes attended GS6 with the help of International Travel Awards to Attend Gender Summits, a grant implemented by AAAS with support and funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The grant was developed in response to findings from the AAAS Mentoring Women in International Research Collaborations (MWIRC) program. The award provides a way for women faculty and researchers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at U.S. minority serving colleagues and universities to broaden their international research collaborations.

Cole-Rhodes traveled to Seoul with grantees Tabitha M. Hardy, an assistant professor of natural sciences at Stillman College; Joann Powell, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Clark Atlanta University; and DeBonne Wishart, an associate professor of water resources management at Central State University.

AAAS President Geri Richmond gave a keynote address at the summit, discussing the need for women to be involved in all stages of scientific discovery and innovation. Richmond, a U.S. science envoy as well as presidential chair and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon, gave some examples of research and commercialization that led to products such as heart valve replacements, medications, voice recognition systems, and automobile airbags that "fell short for women" because they were designed mostly with men in mind.

"We need to get more women into leadership roles in the science and engineering enterprise" throughout the world, Richmond said in an interview after the summit, "and sometimes this will mean women will be going to uncomfortable places of speaking out and using other skills that they might not be comfortable doing in their countries."

Richmond also urged her summit audience to think beyond gender to pursue what she called innovation with diverse perspectives. "It's not just gender, it's culture, it's race…that diversity of opinion in the design and make-up of anything that we do is important."

At the summit, the grantees met with Richmond for an informal talk about their own future plans and challenges, discussing a range of topics including the need to apply to fellowships and attend a wider variety of professional meetings.

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Tabitha Hardy (l), Geri Richmond, Joann Powell, and Arlene Cole-Rhodes discuss career strategies at the Seoul Gender Summit. | AAAS/Hasna Soulhi Ross

"She offered us some sound career advice, like a mentor," said Hardy. "She was very good at helping us think about how to negotiate, level the playing field, and meet our career goals."

The need for quality mentoring has been a theme throughout the summits, beginning with the GS5 South Africa meeting attended by AAAS grantees, said MWIRC Program Coordinator Hasna Soulhi Ross. "What we learned from the first award is that those who participated were eager to mentor students at their institutions and carry on their international collaborations."

Hardy went to GS6 looking for possible international collaborators to continue her studies of breast cancer across different populations. But she also came away from the summit "very much interested in mentoring and setting up some mentoring programs for undergraduate students" at her college, who she said too often turn away from pursuing their Ph.D.s.

"I have some people who I really do feel are mentors to me in the field, and have managed to do well in their particular fields and have a balanced work and life," Hardy said. "That can be inspiring for people to see and to ask, 'if you're there, tell me how to get there.'"

Wishart gave a presentation at the summit on ways to recruit and retain women and minorities in the earth and environmental sciences. Mentoring and professional development, she noted, were among the most important ways to increase participation of these underrepresented groups.

She emphasized some of these points during a AAAS webinar held 24 September to discuss the Seoul meeting. "The most important thing I took away from this conference is that every single faculty member, man or woman, has to have a good mentor. If you don't have a good mentor, you won't succeed," Wishart said.

The travel awards program will send another group of researchers to Gender Summit 7 in Berlin, Germany this November, and is seeking applicants for travel to Gender Summit 8 in Mexico in 2016.