Gender equality in science: are we there yet?

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As the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and a leading publisher of cutting-edge research (via the Science family of journals) the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is well placed to promote equality and diversity in the science workforce, and indeed, this is set out in its mission and goals. We spoke with Head of Education and Human Resources Programs, Dr Shirley Malcom, about how the AAAS has advocated for gender equality in particular, and what it means to be a woman in science today.

When Dr Shirley Malcom began her career in science she found herself presented with constant reminders of the barriers put in place against minorities like herself. Now the Head of Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest general science organisation in the world, and co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, she is in a position to implement programmes designed to engender equality across the sector.

Head of Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS, Dr Shirley Malcom.

In this interview with Research Features she talks about how the situation has changed for minority groups in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector over her working life in the United States, how the AAAS has strived for equality in places of education and work and what she and the organisation will be doing in the future to ensure the trend towards fairness continues.

Can you tell us more about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the campaign, mission and its heritage?
AAAS was founded in 1848 and is an international non-profit, professional society; its mission is to ‘advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people’. AAAS is also a leading publisher of quality research through its Science family of journals, and it occupies a unique space as a multidisciplinary science organisation.

What challenges might women face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers?
While women have increased their presence in STEM education and careers, their presence remains below parity in many fields. Women are the majority of those pursuing higher education in the United States (57% of attendees at colleges and universities) but not in most STEM fields. They remain underrepresented in leadership positions, especially in research extensive institutions. Some institutions have been able to develop climates of support, but nationally women in STEM still experience bias. They may be given lower salaries or less laboratory space. They may be expected to provide more service work (serving on committees, mentoring, reviewing) while such work is not valued in promotion and tenure decisions and there is still the challenge of work-life integration. The ‘arc of a career’, its pathway and timing, is not necessarily suited to the timing of having a family, for example.

AAAS made equality, diversity and inclusion normative Quote_brain

What has your personal experience been as a woman in a leading role?
Earlier in my career, when I was given opportunities to take on leadership roles, some people around me just assumed that I was the affirmative action appointment to the committee or board – the token woman, African American or, better still, ‘twofer’. I came to realise that in those situations, people underestimate you. Fellow board members are often surprised when you correct points within the discussion, which you can only do if you have done your homework, read the policy documents, made it a point to understand procedure and rules of order. Once you establish yourself as someone to be taken seriously, contributing to the overall goals of the body, you have fewer problems.

I have had to get used to being ‘the only’ in lots of settings. I found my voice when I realised ‘it was not about me’. If I was at the table, I had the obligation to voice perspectives and issues of importance to those who were not at the table. I found that I sometimes had to swallow the anger and outrage I felt because they were not productive. I learned to use reason, logic and research findings to make my points.

What impact has AAAS had so far?
One of the most important things that AAAS has done has been to exert leadership – whether that is in science itself, through publication of quality research in our leading journals, or in articulating and urging support for the conditions needed for science to thrive – openness, integrity, diverse inputs and perspectives, etc. We have also focused on promoting science, technology and innovation in service to humankind. This has included where science can inform and support areas such as law, human rights and social justice. It is hard to imagine what the scientific enterprise might look like had AAAS not been a part of shaping its values and structures. AAAS made equality, diversity and inclusion normative. For example, AAAS passed a resolution related to ‘sexual minorities’ in 1975, long before society entertained the idea of fairness and equality for the LGBTQ+ community. It also convened the first Annual Meeting to be fully accessible to persons with disabilities long before federal legislation regarding disability rights.

What are your personal achievements and highlights at AAAS?
AAAS is a team; we have been able to move forward because we do this work in an organisation that has good values, an organisation that supports principled actions. My best role is that of cheerleader and supporter. I am proud of the work we have done to make visible and address issues related to women of colour in STEM and scientists and engineers with disabilities. I am proud that we have reached out to build partnerships for STEM literacy with groups that may seem unusual – pioneering work with youth serving groups, community-based organisations, churches, sororities. We did ‘place-based’ programming many years ago and have evidence that our work in capacity building has been effective. We have supported teachers and parents as teachers; efforts to diversify our faculties in STEM. Perhaps I am most proud that we have been able to help influence policies and change the nature of the discussion within STEM about the importance of education for all and the value of diversity to tap into the deep pool of talent in this country and indeed in the world.

Is there a noticeable difference between the number of men and women members of AAAS or is it well balanced?
I do not know about the balance among the membership. We are currently undertaking efforts to learn more about our members. I can tell you that our leadership is incredibly diverse. Our board has a majority of women members including the president-elect, president and chair of the board. We also have incredible disciplinary and race/ethnic diversity. This is an elected board – this is the leadership chosen by the members.

What needs to be done to ensure that women continue to enter STEM education and careers?
We must collect data about women’s presence and absence from STEM. We must call into question bias wherever it appears.
Over the years we have developed intervention programmes to address the barriers that women face in education and careers in STEM, e.g., putting in place policies to ensure that job searches are open, that hiring is fair; developing culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy; helping address prior course or experience deficiencies (such as the opportunity to use tools). But, we are now understanding that we must enact structural changes in institutions.

I have been very impressed by the impact of the Athena SWAN programme in the United Kingdom as a way to drive systemic change. This voluntary and rigorous assessment process allows institutions to look at their numbers and climate and to develop plans that can move the needle – beyond intervention to affect the fabric of the institutions vis-à-vis diversity and inclusion. We are working to put such a system (which we are calling SEA Change) in place in the United States.

We must collect data about women’s presence and absence from STEM… We must call into question bias wherever it appears Quote_brain

What reception has the AAAS had in its promotion to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM?
The efforts have received a very positive reception, but the reactions were more mixed when I first came to AAAS in the 1970s. Efforts to bring women fully into STEM were sometimes seen as ‘social engineering’. I read back over some of the rhetoric of the times and wonder just how such unscientific thinking and explicit bias was tolerated. I think it was valuable that AAAS’s early positions helped in the process of moving support of women in STEM to normative behaviour.

What are your hopes and plans for the future at AAAS?
I hope that AAAS will continue to stand by the principles of STEM education for all and to support the value of diversity in STEM. We must put in place now the structures to make equality possible: media that supports these communities’ science literacy; access by members of these communities to STEM education and careers; research that addresses the needs of these communities; removal of walls and active engagement between scientists and the public.

My own plans are to spend my remaining time at AAAS trying to construct part of that infrastructure, especially that which can change our colleges and universities into places where diversity and inclusion are ‘baked into’ policies, processes and practices. We take this effort on at a challenging time of America’s history, when issues of diversity and inclusion are taking a back seat in the larger political dialogue. But drawing from the famous quote, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”.

• For more information about the AAAS, its programs in education, activities for underrepresented groups, and public understanding of science and technology, please visit their website

Dr Shirley M. Malcom
Head, Education and Human Resources Programs (EHR)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
1200 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005

T: +1 202 326 6720

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