Women in STEM – how to increase the numbers

I came across this blog post on the Nature Blogs platform and wanted to share it here.  This topic has been kicking around in my brain for a while (well years really, but who’s counting…) but particularly since Anne Marie Slaughter published this piece in The Atlantic recently.

The blog post on Nature makes six recommendations:

  1. Provide all women in science with a committed mentor or ‘career champion.’
  2. Include a ‘family financial support supplement’ in funding applications.
  3. Provide institution-based support for women in the critical years.
  4. Provide funding to solve the two-body problem.
  5. Empower men to take equal responsibility in family life.
  6. Support and encourage part-time working.

GRAMMAR ALERT:  Well, I will admit, because the first recommendation was in the imperative, I updated several of them to match.  Argh, I know it’s a blog post, but I wished they had kept their verb forms consistent!

I have three gut-reactions to this post:

Gut Reaction #1:  Yes.  Yes we need to make the system more navigable to women, and STEM organizations and institutions will be better for that.  Though, I am skeptical about some of their recommendations in general (Will working part-time really be feasible in the ultra-competitive science sphere?  How will she publish in top-tier journals and get tenure?  Or is this really a post-tenure recommendation… OR should the recommendation be about tenure committees recognizing new modes of scholarly communication??  How does this recommendation intersect with the current problem of way way too many PhD students in some fields of STEM?)

Gut Reaction #2:  Recommendation five is the only one that really draws men into this world.  Why is that?  I’m a little wary of recommendation 1 – as one commenter mentioned, if mentorship is only available to women, or is only advertised to women, will that have negative repercussions in the way they think they are viewed?  One of my big take-aways from the “Having it all” article and ensuing chatter was that really the culture needs to change overall – and that doesn’t necessarily  mean singling women out to give them some added layer of support.  It means across the board becoming more tolerant and even actively and enthusiastically supportive of families and their needs. By doing this, employees (men and women) will feel comfortable attending to their lives outside of work and be happier and more productive at work. I’m simplifying, but that was what I gathered she was saying.

Gut Reaction #3:  To whom exactly are these recommendations aimed?  Who are their target leaders who will effect these changes?  What would they need to get that done?  It’s one thing to talk about and offer recommendations, but it’s quite another to create a roadmap for enacting these visions within the context of the bureaucracy, organizational cultures, personalities, politics and funding landscapes facing those who want to act.

I don’t mean to end on a sour note!  But those were my initial reactions.  At a minimum, I’m glad the conversations are moving in the directions they are.  It is very very important to identify the issues and barriers causing inequalities, and it is very very important to lay out a vision for where we want to be.  Getting from point A to point B – laying out the plan and enacting it – is the next step and can only happen if there is that strategic assessment of the current situation and vision for where to go.

Just to end on a more personal note, I will mention that when I first came to the University of Michigan in 2007, I quickly joined the Women in Science and Engineering email list run by the WISE program.  They truly are great – offering relevant workshops, lectures, and general announcements for students, faculty and staff at all levels.  Way to go WISE!  Through them I found out about an annual science fair for which I have been a judge with a few other wise women in science for … gasp … five years and counting!  It’s an event the three of us look forward to year after year.  So, perhaps next March I will blog about it for you all, dear readers.

Until next time… have a lovely weekend!

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