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International Collaboration Helps Women Break 'Polycarbonate Ceiling'

At the GS5 Gender Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, Lolita Gray and Sarah Johnson were determined to talk to as many people as they could.


Sarah Johnson (right) in the studio of radio station SAfm | Courtesy Sarah Johnson

"From day one, my mindset was network, network, network. When I got on the shuttle bus to go to the conference, I started talking to the first person I sat with," said Johnson, an assistant professor of mathematics at Bethune-Cookman University.

The approach paid off. Both Johnson and Gray, an assistant professor of political science at Jackson State University, returned from the conference with plans for joint research projects, speaking engagements, and for Gray, an invitation to market a potential book about her research on environmental health disparities in minority communities. Johnson had another type of experience under her belt: one of her conversations led to her appearing on a nationally syndicated South African public radio program, SAfm, where she discussed the need for visible female role models in STEM.

Both researchers agreed that the April conference was a great opportunity, both personally and professionally. "I was so happy and feel enlightened to have taken part," said Gray.

Gray and Johnson's trips were each funded by a AAAS Mentoring Women in International Research Collaborations (MWIRC) grant intended to help U.S. female faculty and researchers in STEM at minority-serving institutions to broaden their research networks and seek international collaborations with foreign counterparts. This is just one of the ways that AAAS is helping members of under-represented groups in the STEM fields break through what chemist and AAAS President Geri Richmond calls the "polycarbonate ceiling."

Unlike glass, which can be shattered, "polycarbonate is one of our most robust polymers, so you bounce off it," said Richmond, who is also a U.S. science envoy as well as presidential chair and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon. Those who encounter a polycarbonate ceiling blocking career advancement must find creative ways around it, she added.

Visiting Cambodia as a U.S. science envoy, Richmond met with many women scientists and engineers, as well as students learning to use tablets at the Hun Sen Anuwat school (above). In the video below, she discusses how sharing experiences across borders can benefit women in STEM fields. | Photo courtesy of Geri Richmond, video by AAAS/Carla Schaffer

A longtime leader in the effort to enhance diversity in the science, technology, mathematics, and engineering workforce, AAAS is continuing this work guided by Richmond and other members of the AAAS leadership team, including Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR). Malcom, who this month received the UCLA Medal in part for her efforts to diversify the science community, serves as co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development and of Gender InSITE, a global campaign to deploy science and technology to help improve the lives and status of girls and women.

A variety of AAAS projects currently offer early-career support for women, minorities, and persons with disabilities, through conferences, awards, internships, and other activities. Additional efforts, including a newly enhanced program supporting international collaboration by women researchers, are focusing on later-career needs. Ultimately, "our institutions must transform to support values of excellence as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion," Malcom said. "We need to go after the institutional barriers that keep women in marginalized positions within science, in the United States and beyond."

Describing the realization that led her to found COACh, a career-training and networking program for women scientists and engineers in the United States and developing countries, Richmond recalled a time in the 1990s when she was seeing the careers of her women colleagues stalling unexpectedly: "They were publishing, they were getting grants, they were keeping their research groups going, but they were hitting this polycarbonate ceiling. They weren't getting the invited talks. They weren't getting the distinguished lectureships. They weren't getting the offers from other universities that you would see the men get, yet they were equally capable."

News, November 5, 2014 Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom | AAAS

Collaborating internationally can often lead to new professional opportunities, but extended travel can be difficult for mothers with young children or others with family obligations. Through surveys and focus groups, the AAAS Women's International Scientific Cooperation (WISC) project concluded that requiring shorter stays abroad, as compared to other international travel grants, would make international collaborations more accessible for women.

A follow-up to WISC, MWIRC has thus far administered 15 grants of $20,000 each, with funding from the National Science Foundation. While these grants go to women who already have foreign collaborators, AAAS also aims to help female scientists and engineers from minority-serving institutions, to meet potential research partners. The travel grant that sent Johnson and Gray to the Gender Summit will send 12 more participants to the next three Summits.

The program has also rolled out a new website and is conducting webinars for awardees to share experiences and advice.

MWIRC support has made a marked impact on the career of Delaram Kahrobaei, a computer scientist at the City University of New York (CUNY), who collaborated with a mathematician colleague at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. Since traveling to Spain, Kahrobaei and two graduate students have published papers, established a seminar based on their findings, and given a variety of conference presentations. In a 20 May AAAS webinar, Kahrobaei said these developments contributed to her recent promotion to full professorship. CUNY "looks very favorably on international collaboration," she said.

The STEM enterprise needs creativity and diverse perspectives, says Richmond. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Other AAAS activities aim to make science and technology careers more inclusive at the early-career level, such as the Entry Point! internships for students with disabilities and the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation. AAAS also administers the annual L'Oréal awards, which provide grants to women doing postdoctoral research. And, starting this month, AAAS's Marion Milligan Mason Fund will provide three grants of $50,000 every other year to women researchers engaged in basic research in the chemical sciences.

At the AAAS Annual Meeting, EHR organizes an intergenerational networking breakfast for women and minority attendees, which includes a ceremony honoring early-career women scholars from developing countries who are receiving awards from the Elsevier Foundation in partnership with The World Academy of Sciences and the Organization for Women Scientists for the Developing World.

[A variation of this article appeared in the 26 June 2015 edition of Science, as part of the AAAS News & Notes column.]