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What’s equity in politics got to do with parity in science and engineering? March 22, 2012

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, STEM pipeline efforts, women in science.
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A version of this post appeared first on Aspire Wire, Wheelock College’s blog on Advancing Social and Educational Policy, Practice, and Research

Worldwide, merit alone has not led to gender equity in appointments in public office, business and certainly not tenure in science and engineering. Disappointingly, a recent report suggests that it will take another 40 years before 50% of new academic hires in STEM in the United States will be female. Supply and attrition are significant contributors. The degree to which personal choice, institutional practice, and societal norms are involved can be debated.

“Quota” is often a dirty word in the United States. And that puts us behind many countries, such as Rwanda, Namibia and Bangladesh – countries that have used this temporary measure to increase the number of women officials at the highest levels of government. While India still has fewer than 10% women in parliament (because of continuous opposition to legislation to reserve seats for women by the lower house), Dr. Pam Rajput of Punjab University has been instrumental in putting over a million women in local office, which does have a 33% quota, by methodically and doggedly training urban and rural women, uneducated and with higher degrees, in the last 30 years. This has resulted in significant changes in policies around education and public health, improving not only the lives of girls and women, but entire communities.

While a quota system (hopefully voluntarily implemented by institutions) may accelerate change for women and girls in STEM, it will not be enough.

Current efforts to broaden participation in STEM for girls and women and those from underrepresented groups at all levels, from outreach programs for K-12, research opportunities and scholarships for university students, mentoring programs for graduate students and initiatives like ADVANCE, are essential but not sufficiently far-reaching. A practical tool increasingly used by government, businesses and academia in the EU and other countries is called a gender audit, or gender sensitive budgeting.

Instead of just having a numerical target for equity, this tool encourages thoughtful review and discussion of recruitment and hiring practices, workplace or program policies, and other elements that can hinder or promote equity. Moreover, gender auditing asks for the collection of gender-disaggregated data (as well as race, class or other factors as are relevant), that helps set baseline data, identify gaps, monitor progress and test effectiveness of program changes. Recommendations are not just hortatory. Review and reallocation of the budget ensures that proper resources are provided to go the extra mile in implementing necessary policies and slowly reverse any discriminatory practices, intended or otherwise. Importantly, it is an educational tool that opens the eyes of individuals, departmental units and institutions so that women and underrepresented groups don’t carry the full burden of advocating for themselves.

And this is why participation of gender-sensitive women and men at all levels of decision making becomes important if we are to transform the ivory tower, especially for STEM. When a more diverse group of people are committed AND have the ability to direct resources to creating girl- and women-friendly policies in our society, which are at the end family-, human- and earth-friendly policies, then more people in turn can make decisions about who can do science, what engineering research is legitimate, what are appropriate applications of science, technology and engineering. Then and only then can we escape the shackles of business as usual and incremental change. Let’s not let the wait be any longer.


Moving STEM equity training up the pipeline February 1, 2012

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, STEM pipeline efforts.
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This was originally posted as a guest blog on Aspire Wire: Advancing Social and Education Policy, Practice and Research at Wheelock College.

As one whose life work is to encourage girls and women, especially those from underrepresented groups to embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to pursue careers in these areas, I must admit that I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, these pursuits can lead to economic independence, personal fulfillment and a better world. On the other hand, I know many will have a rude awakening when they leave our nurturing environment where sisterhood and mentorship are emphasized, and enter higher education where they are likely to be discouraged by gatekeeper classes and discriminatory professors and fellow students. More than one alumnae have shared those stories.

Source: Adam State College

So reading about the Educators’ Equity STEM Academy gave me great hope. This NSF-supported initiative to help girls and underrepresented groups succeed in STEM studies addresses the psychological impact that subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination has on attrition. This initiative brings in the rich experience of the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity Education Foundation to make sure classroom environments and teacher attitudes and behavior enhance rather than hinder the learning experience and outcome for all. Infusing high school teachers and community college teachers with this training will have the effect of unclogging the STEM pipeline.

At Science Club for Girls, we work with the assumption that for most girls and those from marginalized groups, entering a STEM classroom or STEM field is equivalent to entering into a new cultural space. “Am I welcome? Do I belong? Are they expecting the same from me as everyone else? How do they expect me to behave?” Our job is to help them explore this space safely, and allow them to build an identity that encompasses their “place of origin” and this new territory. If all adults that girls encounter develop this awareness and are actively working to understand and address the stereotypes they hold personally and professionally, I will no longer be ambivalent about sending these young women to explore this exciting STEM frontier.

This blog entry was written in response to “Program aims to help girls, minorities succeed in math and science” — an article from the Baltimore Sun on January 9, 2012 that is accessible here.