True stories of my life as a STEM faculty member

As I walked out of an ADVANCE session I facilitated on bias and faculty hiring at my university, a young male faculty member engaged me in conversation :

He countered all of my science-based evidence on how bias prevents us from the hiring the best by saying – “well, if we hire more women, we may just not be as productive. How can a woman who leaves at 3 pm to pick up her kids be as productive as someone who works the full work day?” I took a deep breath and asked, “How do you know she stops working at 3pm.I can’t tell you about her life, but I can tell you about mine: I leave at 3pm often to pick up my kids. I get them home, give them a snack, make sure they start their homework, get dinner ready, get them to bed, and then I start working again until maybe 10pm or 11pm. Then it starts all over the next day.” He responded, “Wow, I wouldn’t want to work so hard.”


This example demonstrates just how productivity is generally gauged: by the amount of time spent at work in class or in the lab, which denies other definitions of productivity. My own experience left me with a sense of great discomfort that impacted my productivity far more than the time that I devoted to my family impacted it: I was the second woman hired in my department and the first faculty member to bear a child. When I asked about a family leave option, my department head said there was no such thing and a representative of the president of the university asked if I had a doctor’s note. I also sat through discussions of faculty candidates and heard comments like, “Why do we need to hire another woman - we just hired one!” You may think that my description of life as a STEM faculty member is a compendium of many women’s stories – but it is just a sampling of my own.


So, what is being done to change these biases and the work environment for women scientists?


For the past two and a half years, I have worked as a program officer at the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), which recognizes that science suffers because of the underrepresentation and slow advancement of women scientists and engineers. The NSF created a program – ADVANCE – meant to encourage the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) community to change the work environment for women in science.


Why would the National Science Foundation invest in achieving gender equity? The argument lies in the necessity to include everyone in the production of knowledge, discovery and innovation because exclusion is a suboptimal condition for the conduct of basic science. Economic growth and human welfare fundamentally rely on scientists being their most creative and innovative – if scientific research does not include women, then we are not producing our best science.


Universities such as the University of Michigan ADVANCE have been working hard at making the work place more welcoming to women for almost 15 years. A recent survey there finally was able to document that men and women faculty felt the climate had finally improved in tangible ways – for instance, they heard fewer disparaging remarks about women! But women from racial and ethnic minorities did not report improvements to the same degree that white women did. We must be aware that the change process is slow and clearly not fully inclusive.


We do find change happens especially when we work together. Team members in the sport of gender equity are both male and female. The North Dakota State University ADVANCE award developed the much-adapted Forward Advocates and Allies activity that many credit with changing the overall work place at the university. Men become knowledgeable about problems associated with gender bias and are empowered to act – they are not passive when they see inequities but dive right in to create more inclusive environments. Faculty members at Jackson State University find professional advancement and a sense of community through writing retreats that take the isolation out of the scientists’ work and place men and women across racial and disciplinary groups in a shared activity. Both of these universities are substantially different places now after years of working as a community to reduce the negative impacts of bias.


So what have we learned after all this time? We’ve learned that changing the work place is a long-term process and a team sport that requires constant and hard work in every corner of the university. We’ve learned that including women in science is not only about changing the numbers but also about changing where we work and how we work together.


The next step is to scale up those activities and expand the number of people that benefit when bias is reduced!


L’Oréal–UNESCO
For Women in Science

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