Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fix the system, fix the people

Which system, which people? These questions were discussed two weeks ago at a very interesting session ADVANCE Grants: Increasing the Participation of Women in Physics at the summer meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The NSF ADVANCE program seeks to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. Many important contributions have come from major ADVANCE programs around the country, including the STRIDE workshops and materials from the University of Michigan and workshops and materials on Departmental Climate and Breaking the Bias Habit from the the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The AAPT session provided an overview by Program Director Jessie DeAro and summaries of several projects. A major recurring theme was the question of where to focus effort for best effect.

A nice dichotomy was presented by  Sherry Yennello of Texas A&M University in her talk "From ‘Fixing Women’ to ‘Institutional Transformation’: An ADVANCE Case Study". We have a problem to solve: women are underrepresented in STEM and are failing to advance at their capacity. The problem involves both women as a group and the organizational culture of academic science and engineering, i.e., "the system." It is interesting to ask: Are we trying to fix the women, or fix the system? Or is this dichotomy too limited?

Mentoring initiatives are an example of helping women (and all mentees) to improve their chances of success, and are a frequent organizational response to the problem under discussion. The academic system has lots of hidden knowledge to be acquired, and in male-dominated disciplines women can find it harder to acquire this knowledge without special efforts. At least, this is how universities tend to view things. Many universities offer mentoring and career workshops to all, but the motivation sometimes seems to be to "help women and minorities." A similar lens may work for work-life balance, which often is, incorrectly, regarded as a women's issue. And yet women still spend on average much more time in chores and family care than men do, so there is an issue here!

The other talks in the session addressed similar themes, including initiatives to support women in STEM at the Rochester Institute of Technology summarized by Lea Michel, and a peer mentoring network of senior women in physics at small liberal arts colleges described by Anne Cox of  Eckerd College. The talks were great but they leave me with lingering questions and uneasy thoughts: What problem are we trying to solve, and how?

It is easy to focus solutions on people, hence the natural tendency to "fix the people." But which people?

Unconscious bias training such as that pioneered at Michigan and Wisconsin-Madison is another example of "fix the people" -- except that now, in caricature, "the people" are men, especially white men. We all have blind spots, but those exhibited by people in power are the most consequential. So it makes sense to reduce their effects by training the white men (among others).

Sherry Yennello noted another perspective: we could fix the system that women and men operate in so that everyone can succeed to their potential. This involves shifting organizational culture, which is difficult and can take many years. As an interim, continue to assist those who are not fully reaping the benefits of that culture. This seems like a good approach.

Fixing the system is hard because we don't always see it: Lea Michel used the metaphor of a fish in water. It's also hard because people interact with the system and are changed by it more readily than they can change the system.

An example is the great variety of departmental cultures present in a given field or within a given university. The law of large numbers does not seem to equalize climate: two different departments, hiring from the same group of people, can have vastly different traditions, culture, and experience. Person A may thrive in Department B but not in Department C, and this varies greatly with the person and the department.

The NSF ADVANCE program has long recognized this difference. Its Institutional Transformation awards seek "to produce large-scale comprehensive change and serve as a locus for research on gender equity and institutional transformation for academic STEM." The ADVANCE program is in its 15th year. This seems like the right timescale on which to seek institutional transformation.

Maybe the system is what needs fixing, not the people. But the system is widespread, and every new person joining an organization brings their own history of systems. And that brings the final complication: ourselves.

Each of us has work to do. We cannot easily "fix" others, and even less fix a system. But we can fix ourselves. We are all broken in ways, we all needing mending. How much time and effort do we put into that when we think about fixing others or fixing the system?

Social change is hard, harder than physics or astronomy. But those who can start change from within, and then inspire others, can make a tremendous contribution to solving the pressing problems of inequality.