What women really want…

And many others too!

Almost every technical/professional society has a women’s group. Some even have groups for ethnic minorities. The aim of these groups is to improve the standing and representation of individuals from these disadvantaged groups within the profession through educational and networking opportunities and making career support available to them.

You may have read my post on the importance of Equality and Diversity in Science and Technology (E&D Anyone). I make the case that having equal opportunities and a diverse workforce is beneficial for us all in the long term.

The question is, are these groups managing to achieve these stated aims?

Well some are contributing to them with their excellent work (seminars, talks, workshops, awards), while a large number are window dressing and not much more. Organising an annual ‘Women in X’ lunch or ‘ZZ minority in Y field’ tagged into a large conference, as many groups do, simply doesn’t cut it.

The barriers faced by minority or disadvantaged groups are more complex, typically including (see references at the end of the post):

–        Limited access to funds

–        Lower publication and citation rates

–        Fewer honours and prizes won

–        Lower promotion rate and lower pay

–        Less recognition

So what should women’s or other such groups targeted at a disadvantaged section do?

I believe sticking band-aids over a wound will not do the work of a tourniquet. If we want to stop the haemorrhage of talented women/ethnic minorIties/gay people/disabled people from STEM we need to come up with effective measures. These in my view include:

–        Engage with all members and stress to them how diversity is important for everyone in the society. Then get everyone to contribute be it in the form of money/time/expertise/influence

–        Get professional advice!  Businesses have diversity managers – hire them as consultants to learn how they get it right

–        Within professional bodies, getting capable people from these groups to sit on bodies and committees that make the policies for the body

–        Set a target that every journal has sufficient number of people from such groups on the editorial board. Train and support candidates where necessary

–        Ensure that all awards committees have enough people from disadvantaged groups

–        Create long term meaningful career support programmes. For example, set up 5 year programmes where x number of promising applicants will be selected and

a)     given funds for publishing their work (say publication charges for 2 articles per year)

b)     funds to attend one conference per year

c)     mentoring from senior and successful people in the field

d)     executive coaching from professional coaches

e)     skills training on negotiation, influencing, public speaking, interviewing, leadership

f)      get these people on editorial boards

–        Give media coverage to talented individuals from these groups, not limited to ‘Women in X’ or ‘Ethnic minority in Y’ publications alone.

–        Create funds for scholarship and bursaries for these groups, even in affluent countries

There would be many more things that can be done and I invite you to suggest some.

The key thing however, is that we need real will to make these changes happen. Otherwise no matter which measure we adopt, it will falter along and finally stutter to a stop. Allied with determination, we need to have transparency.

As members of professional bodies, we ought to be far more involved in the working of these bodies. Ultimately we will be better served if we articulate our needs clearly. Given that Equality and Diversity is beneficial for us, we ought to be asking for that in the way our societies operate.

We contribute to professional bodies via our membership dues, our time (reviewing articles for free, organising events, serving on committees), donating money and other means. Yet at times we may feel very distant from the policies of the organisation or even how these are made. One way to remedy this is to have more detailed working of the body available: membership statistics, composition of committees and the procedures attached to them, results of initiatives taken, the balance sheet of the organisation. This information should inform our decisions when electing officers and we can strongly support those who espouse E&D and have coherent, smart policies around these issues.

We can effect the changes we want for a more equitable scientific society, all it needs is our involvement.


  1. http://www.advance.arizona.edu/resources.cfm#academia
  2. http://sss.sagepub.com/content/42/2/307
  3. http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/files/2010/10/science-and-gender-in-academia1.pdf
  4. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534707002704
  5. http://arxiv.org/vc/math/papers/0701/0701537v2.pdf
  6. Zuckerman, Harriet. “The careers of men and women scientists.” Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist science studies (2001): 67.
  7. Trix F, Penska C (2003) Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society 14: 191–220

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