STEM Initiative Spotlight: Interview With Association for Women in Science

We talked to Janet Bandows Koster, Executive Director & CEO for the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), to learn about how her organization is providing value to women working in STEM industries.

There’s a shortage of women in STEM careers; what is your organization’s unique role in addressing this issue?

“AWIS is the largest multi-discipline organization for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We are dedicated to driving excellence in STEM by achieving equity and full participation of women in all disciplines and across all employment sectors. AWIS reaches more than 20,000 professionals in STEM with members and chapters worldwide. Membership is open to any individual who supports the vision and mission of AWIS.

Since 1971, AWIS has been the only organization continuously working at the nexus of STEM and gender to provide high quality policy solutions and recommendations for broadening participation. We highlight and honor excellence in STEM by recording women’s contributions and impact on society as executives, faculty, volunteers, mathematicians, moms, scientists, and engineers.

While significant progress has been made in improving the status of women within the scientific workforce over the past 30 years, there is still a dearth of women in many STEM disciplines. In some, women have achieved or exceeded parity in the number of doctoral degrees received and are well represented in the ranks of postdoctoral researchers. Women still comprise less than 28% of science and engineering tenure and tenure-track faculty at four-year colleges and universities. They remain disproportionately represented in the lowest ranks of instructor, lecturer, and in unranked positions. And, women in STEM who have children are making only limited gains in their share of academic employment. Among women full professors in science, engineering and health disciplines, the proportion who have children at home has risen from 8% in 1993 to 16% in 2006, but that is still small compared to the women full professors who remain unmarried (41%).

We believe women in STEM should be:

  • Compensated fairly and without discrimination
  • Advanced equitably and without bias
  • Respected and recognized for their scientific achievements
  • Exposed to successful role models in leadership positions
  • Able to achieve optimum work life integration”

What have you discovered to be effective in helping connect girls and women to STEM studies and careers?

“Academic leaders must understand the substance of the classroom experience of students and faculty in order to be effective advocates and champions for innovation. They must also be equipped with the tools and understanding of the nature of organizational change and transformation so as to be effective in providing vision, support, and advocacy in support of those classroom innovations.

Over the past 20 years, there have been many research studies investigating reasons for the poor retention of women in STEM fields and examining the problems that women students experience. In 1982, Hall and Sandler described it as a “chilly climate in the classroom”. A subsequent landmark study described two types of students who drop out: those who become bored or disappointed with the subject matter and those who lose confidence in their ability to succeed. Many of the factors causing students to switch out of STEM fields were similar for men and women, but 2 of the top 5 reasons that women students switched out were not high on the male students list: “inadequate advising or help with academic problems”, and “rejection of SME careers”. Many other analyses, focusing on why undergraduate women leave science, have further defined key problem areas: 1) alienation accompanied by diminished self-esteem; 2) a perception that, unlike the biological and social sciences, the physical sciences and engineering disciplines do not help people and improve society; 3) an unsupportive environment characterized by lack of role models, limited numbers and size of peer groups; and 4) inadvertent discrimination arising from a belief that “science is a masculine pursuit”.

Effective changes for improving interest and access to STEM education and careers include:

  • Making course content relevant
  • Improving classroom climate
  • Making introductory classes less forbidding
  • Increasing professional socialization and mentoring
  • Provide encouragement and recognition”

How does your approach change when focusing on youth versus adults?

“Most people think work-life integration is a woman’s problem. In the most extensive survey of its kind, AWIS finds concerns about family, time, and career advancement are having demonstrable impacts on the entire STEM workforce, raising serious concerns about the ability to retain scientific talent, sustain innovation, and keep both women and men engaged in research endeavors. Here are five proven solutions you can implement tomorrow.

The book, “Equitable Solutions for Retaining a Robust STEM Workforce: Beyond Best Practices” was developed as a result of the largest global survey ever undertaken about work/life integration issues among scientists. More than 4,000 researchers in both academic and corporate settings responded to the study that revealed 83 percent work more than 40 hours per week and that half those said that work demands conflicted with their personal lives at least two to three times per week. The survey’s findings raised serious concerns about retaining the necessary level of scientific talent required to sustain innovation. The data showed that key factors including lack of flexibility in the workplace, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities and low salaries, are driving many researchers of both genders to reconsider their profession.

Five proven solutions outlined in the book include:

  • Offering equal pay for equal work.
  • Introducing flexible work policies including compressed and part-time schedules.
  • Offering family friendly programs including paid sick and maternity/paternity leave.
  • Establishing clear routes for leadership and promotion.
  • Providing funding for professional development opportunities like a membership in AWIS.”

What milestones have you already reached or are you currently moving towards?

“Over the past four decades, AWIS has continuously worked toward system transformation. In the early ’70s, we filed our first lawsuit against the NIH that resulted in women finally being allowed on peer review panels. We fought a leading publisher to remove erotic photographs of women from medical text books. Today, we continue to point to system biases including equitable access to research funding, promotions, and scholarly recognition.

In 2010, Dr. Phoebe S. Leboy, University of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, past president of AWIS, and passionate advocate for gender parity in STEM, began leading an effort to examine how scientific disciplinary societies recognize individuals for their scholarly achievements. This project was funded by the ADVANCE program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is designed to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. The two goals of the AWARDS Project (Advancing Ways of Awarding Recognition in Disciplinary Societies) were to assess the putative gender gap for scholarly recognition by societies, and then to work with disciplinary societies to achieve gender parity in their programs.

While the AWARDS Project is just a few years old, we have already seen that Societies that revised their nomination and screening processes had very encouraging early results, and we hope that the shift in representation of women among award winners continues in ensuing years. Indeed, given that the changes we observed occurred within 2 years of the first AWARDS workshop, we believe that education and awareness of implicit gender bias through explicit training mechanisms can have a dramatic effect on the scholarly recognition of women professionals in STEM. Our vision for the future is that such recognition will translate into a shift in cultural paradigms and eventually lead to more equitable promotion, career advancement, and leadership opportunities between male and female researchers.”

How can schools, professional organizations and companies work together to empower women entering STEM?

We recommend that employers pay particular attention to outmoded policies and practices and implicit biases which creep into the recruitment and promotion processes. Employers can inoculate against implicit bias by discussing it or showing an informational video before convening recruitment, tenure, and selection committees; when possible, mask the gender of candidates for positions; encourage a double-blind review process for journal articles; create heterogeneous committees that represent the breadth and diversity of the institution in terms of gender and ethnicity; consider the influence of language when creating job solicitations and writing letters of recommendation as well as giving honorary names to awards, memorial lecture series, etc.. When evaluating candidates for hiring, tenure, and other promotions, ensure that their accomplishments are being evaluated, not their qualities as individuals.

To find out more check out our full feature piece, 15 Innovative Initiatives Bringing Women Into STEM, as well as the Association for Women in Science website.

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