Addressing STEM Gender Equity through Institutional Systemic Change

by Ann E. Austin and Sandra Laursen, Ph.D.

Women in STEM

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The problems facing society today are complex, multi-disciplinary, and highly significant — what some call “wicked problems.” Excellence, creativity, and innovation require drawing on the best minds available. Yet, within academia, we are not yet tapping fully into the expertise available throughout the population. Women and people of color continue to be underrepresented within the ranks of academia, especially within the STEM fields. Our book, “Building Gender Equity in the Academy: Institutional Strategies for Change,” tackles this problem, argues for the imperative of a systemic approach, and describes a set of twelve strategies that help create more diverse, inclusive, and equitable higher education institutions. . While gender issues are the focus of the book, many of the strategies discussed pertain to bringing more diversity and equity into the academy for all those in historically underrepresented groups.

In this initial blog, we explain the problem we are addressing, and make a case for why an effective approach requires commitment to “fixing the problem, not the women!” Taking a systemic approach begins with analyzing the nature of the problem of lack of diversity and inequity in academia. We focus on the fact that women are underrepresented in STEM fields in academia, particularly in engineering, mathematics, physics, and earth science, and often clustered in lower-status positions. The percentage of women who pursue faculty roles is less than their rate of earning the PhD, and women leave the academy at rates higher than expected given the percentages employed. Although women fill critically important roles as researchers, teachers, collaborators, and outreach communicators, their work is undervalued, they are underrepresented, and they often receive less recognition in the organization or their fields than their male colleagues. These concerning patterns are particularly severe and problematic for women of color.

What factors contribute to the prevalence of this problem? First is the issue of bias. Bias is embedded in our human experience. All of us have pervasive mental habits — some conscious and some unconscious — formed through many experiences throughout the course of our lives. Our implicit biases about gender, race, or other personal characteristics are especially strong. Such biases are especially likely to have an impact on our decision making and actions when we face work that must be done under time pressure, or when expectations or criteria are fuzzy; of note, many academic decisions occur under such circumstances. A result is that women academics and faculty of color are awarded fewer grants, receive lower start-up packages, and receive fewer awards.

A second factor contributing to the problem is the overly masculinized culture and climate of the academic workplace. The predominance of men on STEM faculties contributes to a culture in which systematized patterns of exclusion, being ignored, or harassment create inequitable daily work environments for many women faculty members. Microaggressions, isolation, inequities in work allocation, marginalization, and unwelcoming work environments for those who are underrepresented can impact satisfaction, intention to stay, and productivity in negative ways for women and people of color.

Third, as a workplace, the academy has been organized around men’s careers and life patterns. Women often experience work-life challenges as they try to advance in their work while managing personal and family responsibilities, including care for children and elders, civic and religious commitments, and attention to personal well-being. Some decide to remain single, or if married, delay starting a family or choose to have fewer children than preferred. Juggling multiple responsibilities, many women have less discretionary time than their male counterparts, which can sometimes lead others to think they are being uncollegial. Such workplace challenges can hamper productivity, create self-doubt, and chip away at commitment to stay in the academy.

Together these pressures, experienced over time, lead to an accumulation of disadvantage. While any one factor may seem manageable, the full set of interacting pressures creates multiple barriers and undermines the time, energy, and confidence of women. Furthermore, similar pressures affect others in the academy who are from marginalized groups, including faculty of color, working-class faculty, and those who identify as genderqueer. In fact, the intersectionality of identities can create added burdens for many women faculty in the STEM fields.

A problem so deep-rooted in organizational culture, human thinking, and personal habits is a systems problem — and therefore requires a systems approach to change it. Picture a pond with gentle waves in circular, concentric ripples, flowers floating on the surface, and a duck swimming by. The pond is really a highly dynamic and interconnected system which can only be well understood if its complexity is recognized. Changing the underrepresentation of women and people of color, and creating more inclusive, diverse, and equitable academic environments, is a systems problem — one that must be addressed through analyzing the nuances of what is happening, considering what parts of the organization need to change, and identifying a set of change strategies. Furthermore, context matters. Addressing a systemic problem requires a systems approach, involving multiple levers for change that work together to respond to a specific context.

Universities should be societal leaders in fostering diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments. A diverse workplace enhances productivity, innovation, creativity, and open-mindedness. Diverse and inclusive higher education institutions provide opportunities for women to thrive and serve as role models for others. In short, diversity fuels excellence. Based on a study of 19 universities that have had National Science Foundation grants through the ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program, our book addresses the importance of creating environments that welcome and support the full range of talent in society, presents a set of twelve strategies that are powerful interventions for tackling inequities in academia, and explains how to develop a comprehensive plan for organizational change. In later blog posts, we will dig further into what these strategies are and how they can be combined, with an eye to contextual specificity, to encourage more diverse, inclusive, and equitable academic workplaces.


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