Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tips from Nature 'Women in STEM' Articles

This week's guest blogger is Johanna Teske, who is finishing her fifth year as an Astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, Steward Observatory (applying for jobs this fall, hint hint!). Johanna investigates the chemical connection between stars and planets and also dabbles in education research.

As many of you know, and at least one other recent post here has highlighted, the 7 March 2013 issue of Nature contributed to the theme of Women's History Month, "Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics" with a series of articles describing the current status of women in STEM across the globe, what progress has been made towards equality, and the disparity and injustices that still exist for women in science. In this blog post, I focus on the possible solutions that the Nature articles discuss; this is not meant to be a summary! Some (most) of these solutions seem obvious, but I interpret their continued appearance in articles/discussions as an indication that they have yet to penetrate the consciousness of most people…or at least those making big decisions. I cannot encourage you enough to read all of the articles themselves -- none are very long, and all are jam-packed with much more information than what I highlight. The link to the articles is here. As you read the articles, and this post, think critically about how you and your colleagues, organization, and institution can work toward implementing some of these goals and making STEM fields a friendly, motivating, and exciting environment for everyone. Also, please share your efforts in the comments or as a separate blog post – it’s important to both set good examples and evaluate each other’s best-practices for potential improvements.

- Whatever your professional position or level, engage in consciousness-raising activities – contribute to foundations, provide gender-bias literature to those serving on decision-making committees, talk about the accomplishments of both male and female scientists in your classrooms and to your students. Encourage your university or professional organization to educate the public about science by inviting families to join conferences, career days or networking events that include the presentations of achievements of women in STEM. The editors of Nature publicly challenged (and embarrassed) themselves in November of last year by revealing that 14% of the invited Comment and World View authors were female (Nature 491, 495; 2012). They said they would try harder to engage women, and that they would make their progress public in time.

- No one is immune to gender bias (it has even been reported in preschool children (Sex Roles 68, 231; 2012)!), and it prevents us as scientists from promoting the best work and advancing our field(s). Overt or unconscious gender bias is present in male and female scientists alike, even those who actively promote women in science (Nature 495, 33; 2013). Just like we can overcome bad physical habits (admittedly I still bite my fingernails constantly…), we can suppress bad mental habits through deliberate, conscious practice. Start the discussion about bias (gender and others) with your professional group by having everyone take the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious associations between concepts, and then discuss what they learned, and/or participate in the Gender Bias Learning Project.

- Make grant- and patent-funding institutions more accountable for gender equity (see AAS Women Issue 5, 2012, point 2). In the US, women are marginally more successful than men in getting grants from the NSF, but the trend is reversed for the NIH, which also gives women smaller awards on average. Make gender-bias training mandatory for anyone funded by a grant from the NIH…or, really, any government-funded grantee.

- Change the deep institutional impediments to women scientists by actively changing the culture and organization of higher-education institutions. Increase diversity in recruitment, introduce specific promotion and retention policies, update management and research-assessment evaluations, develop content for courses that attracts women and men (e.g., Giving Women the Access Code), develop policies for dual-career couples, have a scheme for women (and men) to return to work after a career break, encourage institutions to publish data on their gender equity policies, practices and results (who is working at what levels). Establish and promote a university-wide mentoring system, and an easily-accessible online portal of gender information for university staff. Related – The Matilda Effect in Science: Awards and Prizes in the US, 1990s and 2000s.

- Learn to recognize “non-events” – not being seen, heard, supported, encouraged, taken into account, validated, invited, included, welcomed, greeted or simply asked along -- and respond to them individually or collectively. These “non-events” are a subtle but powerful way to discourage and excluded women from science; one may not have a huge impact, but multiple instances over time have a deeper impact.

- Recruit more women to serve on company scientific advisory boards – scientists invited by the company’s academic founders to help steer the company’s scientific direction and decide which projects to promote and fund. American women receive patents about 40% as often as men, start businesses half as often, and receive significantly les funding for start-ups they do launch. A 2012 report from Credit Suisse in Zurich showed that companies worldwide with women on their boards have higher share prices than those with all-male boards! CSWA has tons of information on this topic, and the benefit of diversity in many contexts.

- Universities should modify the tenure-clock extension rules to cover children born at any career stage, for both men and women. Even if people already have children when beginning as assistant professors, they should be offered an additional year per child (perhaps up to 2 children) to obtain tenure. This has the potential to eliminate a form of discrimination that deters young scientists (more so women than men) from choosing tenure-track jobs, and would increase the chance that those who do choose these jobs to make tenure. Read about MIT’s efforts, and how parental leave policies compare at different astronomical institutions.

- Mentor a younger/less experienced female in your field (see the CSWA page for resources/tips) or your peers. Many experts agree that a big factor driving the disproportional fraction of women dropping out of science careers in the early stages is the lack of role models in upper divisions. Female students, “conclude consciously and unconsciously that these careers are not for them because they don't see people like them” (Nature 495, 22; 2013). I might modify that to, “when they aren’t encouraged or recognized as much as the males around them.” Related – Study of Structures of Inequality in Astronomy.

- Make sure that conferences or workshops you organize can provide child-care, have remote-presentation options, and strive to invite a equal number of female and male plenary speakers. Women are more likely to ask questions in sessions chaired by women, regardless of the speaker’s gender. Sign this petition ( to illustrate your commitment. Check out the stats of recent astronomy conferences here.

- Recognize and emphasize that female scientists now, and in the past, are/were complex, challenged, imperfect, and unique, but not weird or alien, and deserve respect and attention because they have weaknesses as well as extraordinary capabilities, just like every human being (even Marie Curie).

- Consider quotas – good or bad? They could be a good way to ensure that younger females in science have role models, but imposing quotas on, say, decision-making committees or editorial review boards could overburden the few women who already hold top positions.

1 comment :

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