Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Women in STEM Organizations- Getting Started

Post by guest-blogger Meredith Danowski*, PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University.

The day-to-day work of science can be difficult. There are grant proposals to be written, courses to be taught, data to be analyzed. But that's the stuff we came for! That's what we do. It's when we encounter other roadblocks on our path--juggling family and work, finding adequate health care, fostering our own professional development-- that we realize we need friends, we need a community, and we need supportive institutions.

Many organizations dedicated to the cause of women in STEM are designed to address this need - not to ease one individual's struggles, rather to act as an incubator for a more diverse and supportive community. I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the founding years of two such groups-- the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP) at the University of Michigan, and most recently, the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) group at Boston University.

In a time when the numbers are improving, many people ask why these groups are necessary. I mean, we're aware that there's a lack of diversity in science, right? Outright discrimination might be rare, but unconscious bias is pervasive, family leave policies are lacking or inconsistent, and mentoring and community greatly improve one's chance for success. While things are definitely looking up, we still have work to do. So why not work to build a community that strives for these goals?

Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." GWISE at Boston University started in 2008 with a few people in a room and a conversation. It began with a small group of women concerned about their professional development, bias in their departments, and parental leave policies at the university. They were looking for a community, and there wasn't one, so they built it.

A few conversations led to a discussion with the dean. The group set up a luncheon and invited women in STEM from across the university to gauge interest. A few months later, they made a list of goals: a mission statement. They borrowed from other organizations and devised an executive board structure. They found an advisor.

Two years later, GWISE is thriving. With a board of graduate students across STEM disciplines, faculty and staff advisors, and a board of advisors from the Boston area, we work to provide professional development programming, opportunities for mentoring and networking, social events, outreach activities, and we work with the administration on policies and practices. Our events vary in size and reach anywhere from 10-100+ people. We brainstorm, borrow ideas, and partner with other organizations to effectively reach the community.

So if you're looking to start up a group for women in astronomy/physics/STEM at your institution, what should you do? Invite some allies for coffee. Discuss any issues you've encountered, discuss institutional policies, and determine if you have a critical mass of people who can devote the time necessary- maybe invite the biologists and engineers, too! Once you're there, make a list of goals and priorities. You might have great leave policies, but few chances for professional development, or a lack of a social community. Maybe you want to start an official mentoring program. Put together some information and make an appointment with a department chair or a dean and see if you can obtain some preliminary funding - showing your events/activities will improve the environment goes a long way.

And it all starts with just a small group of dedicated individuals.

*Meredith Danowski is a PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University and this is her first guest blog at the Women in Astronomy Blog. This is the first in a series where she describes her experiences with GWISE-- she'll be back to discuss how to find & utilize institutional and community support for your organization, and how to build partnerships to effectively provide unique programming.