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Women in Science: Supporting a Diverse Scientific Enterprise

SEA Change supports institutional transformation in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. | Neil Orman/AAAS

In honor of Women’s History Month, a three-part series looks to the past, present and future of women in STEM. Today, AAAS highlights its programs that support and champion female scientists today.

Some of the most accomplished women working in science today have been honored as AAAS Fellows, among them biochemist and 2020 Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, physicist and university president Shirley Ann Jackson, animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, former astronaut Ellen Ochoa, and chemical engineer and 2018 Nobel Prize recipient Frances Arnold.

But, according to data released earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau, women are still outnumbered by men in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions despite making up half the workforce. While there have been important gains in recent decades – women made up only 8% of STEM workers in 1970 and accounted for 27% of STEM workers in 2019. There is still much more work to do.

To ensure that the scientific enterprise is a space where women can do their best work, numerous AAAS programs support women in science – and help institutions make systemic changes to ensure a more diverse, equitable and inclusive present and future for science.

For more than 15 years, AAAS has partnered with L’Oréal USA on the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship. AAAS manages the application and review process for the fellowship, which awards five female scientists in postdoctoral roles grants of $60,000 to advance their research. The fellowship reaches female scientists at an important time. According to a 2019 study of past fellows, women in STEM frequently leave their scientific careers during the postdoctoral stage. The fellowship is working to close this gap successfully. One hundred percent of past fellows continue to work in STEM, and the majority surveyed said that receiving independent grant funding helped advance their careers.

Every other year since 2015, the Marion Milligan Mason Award has granted $55,000 each to four or five early-career female scientists conducting basic research in the chemical sciences. The awards are funded from a $2.2 million bequest to AAAS in the will of chemist Marion Milligan Mason to support women in chemistry and honor her own family’s commitment to women’s education. 

The award winners, who must be teaching or research staff members at American Ph.D.-granting institutions, are selected through a range of criteria, including the potential of their research to advance knowledge in their field and benefit society.

Rather than assisting individual women, the SEA Change initiative at AAAS takes a systemic approach to improving diversity, equity and inclusion. SEA Change supports colleges and universities as they undertake a data-informed self-assessment process to identify barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion. Based on this individualized assessment, each institution creates their own break down barriers for students, staff and faculty from groups who have been excluded or marginalized based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability status or any other aspect of identity that has been a source of bias in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Seven educational institutions have joined SEA Change so far as charter members, and five universities have earned SEA Change Institutional Bronze Awards for the work they have accomplished in pursuit of inclusion.

The recipients of the SEA Change Institutional Bronze Awards “demonstrate what is possible when institutional vision and leadership combine with a willingness to honestly assess barriers and enthusiastically commit to transformation that supports equity and inclusion,” said Shirley Malcom, director of SEA Change and a senior advisor for AAAS. “We hope they feel as honored to receive this recognition as we are to bestow it.”

AAAS will also undergo the SEA Change self-assessment process as part of its plans to strengthen its advocacy on behalf of diversity, equity and inclusion.

[Associated image: Elena Zhukova/University of California, Santa Cruz]