Women in STEM

Last week I was at the 2016 Summit of the National Center for Women and Information Technology.  It was an interesting conference in several ways (the large, mostly empty, slightly creepy desert hotel constantly evoked the warm smell of colitas), but mostly because of the very powerful keynote by Melissa Harris Perry.

She began by giving us a brief introduction to intersectionality and laying out the issue (a familiar one to this audience) of women’s underrepresentation in STEM, with some compelling (frightening) specifics.

For example, earlier this year, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was awarded a PhD in theoretical physics at MIT.  Nothing really surprising or unusual about that (although good news for Dr. Prescod-Weinstein), until you realize that Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is not just an African-American woman, she is one of only 83 African-American women to receive a PhD in physics or a physics-related field.  83.  Not 83 in the past year, or 83 at MIT, or 83 with hyphenated last names.  83 African-American women with PhD’s in physics EVER.  In all of American history.

Then Dr. Perry showed us this graph (which I’d seen before, but which shocks every time) from the AAC&U study in 2010. (source)


Those lines show the numbers of degrees and faculty ranks for women of color in various fields.  In physics, math, engineering and computer science, the numbers are low from the start.  But look how all the numbers dive off a cliff when you get to the rank of full professor.

So the problem is real (and she had plenty more examples, some personal).  And the audience knew it, and were more outraged still to hear all the examples and specifics.  And Dr. Perry was very good about explaining how very many of the attempts to solve this problem (computer engineer Barbies, coding boot camps, job “opportunities” that don’t address the culture of organizations, internships or training programs that never lead to actual decision-making roles), even when they’re well-intentioned, are doomed to go nowhere, because they don’t address the roots and real causes of the problem.  Which, of course, is deep, cultural, and complex.

But, to her great credit, Dr. Perry went even further than explaining the problem and critiquing unsuccessful solutions.  (I was at first worried that this was going to end up as one of those “it’s a bigger problem and therefore we have to just throw our hands up in the air” talks) She provided a list of real practical steps, with deep reach and broad foundations, that could actually, systemically, successfully, pave the way to creating and improving real opportunities for girls and women of all kinds to participate in real ways in the STEM careers and academic pursuits in which they are underrepresented.

Here are those steps, as I captured them.  Working from my notes, hastily scribbled, I am certainly missing and mis-paraphrasing some of what she said.  But I thought this was real enough and strong enough to document.

  1. Fight voter suppression.  This one clearly surprised the audience, as it seemed somewhat unrelated.  But Dr. Perry’s link of underrepresentation to questions of policy and power and funding (controlled by the people who are most affected) made perfect sense.
  2. Reproductive justice and real sex education.  Women can’t easily make the whole ranges of choices about their careers and educations if they can’t make choices about their bodies and families and partners.
  3. Comprehensive immigration reform. So that women can pursue opportunities globally.
  4. Cite a woman of color.  Every time.  In every publication, in every talk, always cite at least one woman of color.  If you haven’t cited any, don’t assume there are none to cite.  There are, and the fact that you don’t know of them is part of the problem, not a reason to continue the problem.
  5. Follow Black girl leadership.  Don’t tell the girls what’s the “right” kind of STEM or of making, let them tell you.  Reading, or rocking, or singing or painting, can be just as much a way to learn STEM as coding.  Schools (and especially STEM programs in schools) need to stop acting like making art or music in school is some kind of weird distraction or waste of time.  (STEAM not just STEM).
  6. Honor the different intersections of all types of women and girls.  Talking about “women and minorities” completely ignores the people who are simultaneously both.  Girls and women come in all types of shapes and sizes and races and abilities.  Not all women are cis women.  Not every girl wants to be an astronaut or an athlete.  Lipsticks and head-scarves and boots and suits and leather jackets and fuzzy sweaters all need to be welcomed.
  7. Community engaged research. Projects and studies that meet the needs and answer the questions of real communities will often work better to engage real people than “Hello World” or fighting robots.
  8. (Here she quoted Antoine de St. Exupery) “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  It’s not about specific tasks.  It’s not about learning to code or learning calculus.  It’s about the endless immensity of the sea.  Get people inspired, not about tools but about goals.  Not about tasks, but about dreams. (as it turns out, St. Exupery might not have said exactly this.  But the point still needs to be made, and I still love it).
  9. Right to fail.  Not just that people have a right to fail, which of course we do, but that it’s right to fail.  It’s the exact right thing to do.  If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.

(As I said, I’m probably misquoting Dr. Perry, and almost certainly missed some of what she said.  9 points is a start, but only a start.  There’s more.  But I really love the way she looks at concrete practicalities as well as global principles)

As we at CUNY and all of education and higher education, and as I personally, work to include more opportunities for more people who have been left out of STEM (STEAM), I want to remember these as principles to work with.  And I would love to hear more discussion of all of them, at all levels.  Let’s talk about specific programs and initiatives, sure.  But also about bigger challenges and wider changes that address the real issues.

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