Monday, August 18, 2014

‘Women in Science’ Groups as Instruments of Change

Reposted from the July Issue of Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy.  By Meredith Danowski, Ph.D. Student, Department of Astronomy, Boston University

There are grants that need to be written, data that need to be analyzed, and courses that need to be taught. Juggling the every day work of science can be difficult, but it is often the tasks that fall outside the job description that cause the most stress. Maybe you’re searching for childcare, eldercare, or healthcare. Maybe you watch laundry pile up next to the remnants of a long-lost hobby. Maybe you are experiencing a harassing work environment. It is in those moments of frustration and difficulty that we realize that we need friends, we need mentors, and we need a supportive community.

Organizations that support women in science often spring from such seeds—founded to ease the struggles of many by providing a support network. While diversity in departments has improved, unconscious bias is pervasive, leave policies are inconsistent or lacking, and the pipeline is still leaking. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) groups play a critical role in the scientific community, using mentoring, networking, and personal and professional development to bring about a new culture. They serve to change the system from the ground up, demonstrating that diversity breeds excellence and paving the way for even larger initiatives. There is still work to be done, so why not band together to build a community that strives to change the climate for modern day science?

Having had the fortune of being involved in the earliest stages of such organizations, I have blogged about my experiences at the Women in Astronomy blog and I hope to convince you to find some allies, get started, get involved, and to build your community.

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.” It all starts with a few people in a room and a conversation. So invite some like-minded colleagues out for coffee to discuss institutional policies and issues you’ve encountered along your way. Determine if you have a critical mass of people who can devote the time necessary to getting things off the ground. Don’t just look within your field. Broaden your vision to include women in other branches of science and engineering.

Once together, make a list of goals, priorities, and guiding principles—perhaps you want to tackle leave policies or hiring practices, start a mentoring group, or get people together for social outings. Write down your ideas, strategize, compile information, and organize a document. Do your research; find past examples of success and demonstrate how your organization supports the goals of the institution. Define the scope of your activities and outline the progress you expect to make. Meet with department chairs, deans, or directors to try to obtain start-up funding and to get them invested in your cause. Beyond asking for the financial support, invite these individuals to play an advisory role, providing ideas, contacts, and sharing administrative resources.

Regardless of the group’s size or breadth of audience, fostering relationships with the broader community is crucial to ensure success and longevity. Work with other organizations and capitalize on existing programs to extend your resources. Reach beyond your institution and collaborate with wider networks. By sharing opportunities, you ease the workload, increase your membership, and broaden your impact.

Take time out to evaluate progress and seek feedback from your membership and any persons in advisory roles. Ask yourselves how well you are fulfilling your mission, and be prepared to change as the group grows. By measuring impact, it’s easier to demonstrate success and keep people invested. Also, by building these partnerships and harnessing available resources, you can grow your research program as well, gaining collaborators and honing the skills that promote effective research.

So while an initial, additional time commitment may seem daunting, being involved in a ‘women in science’ group presents unique opportunities for personal growth, professional advancement, and cultural change. Through these grassroots movements, we can demonstrate the benefits of diversity and begin to build a community truly invested in supporting science and scientists.