SISTEM one-on-one from Alexandria, Virginia with Dr. Heather Metcalf, Director of Research and Analysis of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS): The largest multi-disciplinary organization for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the US.
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SISTEM one-on-one from Alexandria, Virginia with Dr. Heather Metcalf, Director of Research and Analysis of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS): The largest multi-disciplinary organization for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the US.

Heather Metcalf

Heather Metcalf, PhD, is the director for research and analysis with the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) where she directs, coordinates and performs research and analyses surrounding gender and the STEM workforce. Dr. Metcalf recently completed her postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona (UA) as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE. She earned her doctorate from the Center for the Study of Higher Education at UA in May 2011. She also holds master’s degrees in gender and women’s studies (UA, 2007) and computer science (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2005). Her research areas are science and technology policy studies, gender studies and human-computer interaction. She has research, policy and programmatic expertise in faculty and student development, recruitment and retention initiatives, STEM cultures, unconscious bias, and STEM workforce, education, diversity and equity issues.


Q:   Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS).

Metcalf: I did my undergraduate degrees at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, a small state school close to the rural town where I grew up.  I majored in applied mathematics and computer science and minored in English writing while taking courses in women’s studies. I held work-study positions in the Office of Institutional Equity, where I learned much about gender and racial equity issues impacting our campus, and in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, where I built servers for the student computer lab.

Through the encouragement of my CIS supervisor, who was aware that I knew little about graduate school, I applied for the Computing Research Association’s Distributed Mentorship Program and was accepted for a research internship with an artificial intelligence and robotics faculty member at the University of Minnesota. I spent six weeks building and programming Lego robots with a group of graduate students and decided to apply for graduate school. I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied human-computer interaction.  Unfortunately, I also experienced a number of problematic gender issues that I’d later discover are often the norm for women in STEM fields.

As I sought to better understand my experiences, I took on a graduate minor in gender studies and joined the local women in computer science group, ChicTech. The group was incredibly welcoming and motivated, yet there were no other graduate women there and they largely focused on recruiting K-12 girls into computer science without any attention to the cultural issues I found myself brushing up against. To me, it felt like, without efforts to make the culture of the department a place where everyone can thrive, recruiting young women into the program was a bait and switch.

During my second year, I partnered with two other graduate women that I had befriended who were experiencing similar frustrations. With the support of the department, we conducted a research study of the culture of the department for undergraduate and graduate students. We used this study to inform the department on a number of issues that were negatively impacting the overall student body as well as issues that were having even greater impact for women in the program. This study became the focus of my second master’s thesis when, after completing my computer science master’s degree, I turned down a lucrative job in industry to obtain a master’s degree in gender studies from the University of Arizona. My experiences at the University of Illinois had so profoundly influenced how I viewed science and I felt compelled to do work that would create positive change not just in that CS department, but in STEM spaces of work and learning overall.

At the University of Arizona, I continued on to do my doctoral work in higher education with a focus on science and technology policy. I worked as a research assistant and post-doctoral researcher for the UA’s ADVANCE grant, where I studied faculty equity issues in STEM and applied that research toward institutional change. When the announcement for the director of research and analysis position with AWIS crossed my desk, it felt like it was written for me and I applied right away. I’m incredibly fortunate to be directing and conducting applied, interdisciplinary research that I’m passionate about with an organization that is leading the way toward systemic change.

Q:   Tell us about the Association for Women in Science: its creation (who created it and why) and its programs.

Metcalf: AWIS is the leading advocacy organization for women in STEM.  Founded in 1971 at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), our founders believed there needed to be a place where women could come together to network, provide and receive mentoring, and gain professional support. These are the roots of the advocacy and policy initiatives that we pursue today.

One of our first actions, for example, was to approach a medical publishing company regarding an Anatomy 101 textbook for students in medical colleges. To keep male students interested, the publisher purchased photos from Playboy magazine to depict female anatomy. Removing these textbooks from the market was an early victory for AWIS in addressing sexism and bias in STEM educational and work spaces.

Since its founding, AWIS has grown from an early pioneer to serving as the thought leader in the research, policy, and practice surrounding gender equity in STEM.  With over 20,000 professionals in STEM serving as members and affiliates worldwide, the AWIS community connects a network of STEM professionals, leaders, mentors, and advocates across the globe.  Through our research and analysis; advocacy and public engagement; and talent and leadership development, we work for positive system transformation, striving to see that all women in STEM can achieve their full potential.

Q:   Can you please expand specifically on two of AWIS’ initiatives: (1) Research & Analysis and (2) Advocacy & Public Engagement?


Research and Analysis

AWIS provides research and analysis on contemporary issues impacting STEM. Our programs, projects, and advocacy efforts are data-driven and research based.  They target the systemic obstacles faced by women in STEM and provide unique solutions to help them reach their full potential – as students, professionals, researchers, faculty, and leaders.

Through our AWARDS Project, for example, we conducted longitudinal research on awards allocations processes with 18 STEM disciplinary societies with a combined membership of nearly 500,000 scientists and mathematicians.  Our research shows that while women’s receipt of professional awards overall has increased in the past two decades, men win a higher proportion of scholarly awards and women win a higher proportion of teaching and service awards than expected based on their respective representation in the nomination pool.  Through logistic regression analyses, we found that men were more than eight times more likely to win scholarly awards than women when accounting for their proportion in the nomination pool and were twice as likely to win scholarly awards regardless of their representation in the nomination pool. In addition, women won particularly few scholarly awards when there were “women only” awards available. 

As part of applying our research toward systemic change, with the support, partnership, and presence of society and awards committee leadership, we then presented these findings as evidence that further action needed to take place. We shared the findings in conjunction with unconscious bias trainings and further data gathering by the participants as a review of their processes. We then brainstormed, within the context of each society, how to make equitable revisions. The kinds of changes included: continuing bias trainings, creating more diverse selection committees, revising the language in calls for awards nominations and in the selection criteria, and creating greater transparency.

Understanding retention issues in the STEM workforce remains a major challenge as the majority of research on STEM retention has focused on undergraduate education.  AWIS research aims to bridge this gap in knowledge through a number of our research initiatives.  For example, our global survey of over 4,000 scientists in academic and corporate settings, the results of which have been published in Equitable Solutions for Retaining a Robust STEM Workforce: Beyond Best Practices, has uncovered key factors impacting retention in STEM workplaces. Co-authored by Donna Joyce Dean, Ph.D., an expert on scientific and technical workforce issues, and Janet Bandows Koster, executive director and CEO of AWIS, the book was developed to provide both academic and private sector STEM work environments with the tools they need to retain their workforce, especially women. 

This research revealed 83 percent of the scientists who completed the survey work more than 40 hours per week and half 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 and provided us with novel insights on where to direct our advocacy efforts to best create STEM workplace cultures that allow all scientists to thrive.

More examples of how are research efforts are put into action are detailed in the next section on Advocacy and Public Engagement.

Advocacy and Public Engagement

AWIS research informs and educates members of Congress, the Administration, federals agencies, STEM organizations and the public about the opportunities and challenges facing the U.S. STEM workforce. Women are 47% of the U.S. workforce, but make up only 26% of the STEM workforce. In fact, among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women: 31 percent compared with 15 percent. Our emphasis is on workplace policies and practices, funding and support for science research and innovation, and workforce development.  AWIS also supports legislation and policies which seek to increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities. Guided by the research on major issues impacting retention in STEM workplaces, AWIS promotes:

·       Equitable Workplaces:  AWIS research and programs prove that workplace cultures which value, respect, and recognize all people tend to be more collaborative, more productive, and often have greater financial success. AWIS promotes federal and workplace policies that support such workplace cultures.

·       Work-life Integration: AWIS research demonstrates that the pervasive culture of overwork in many STEM workplaces creates a struggle for both men and women in finding the appropriate balance between work and personal life. AWIS promotes workplace policies that provide alternative and flexible work schedules as one way organizations can support and retain scientists and engineers.

·       Family Friendly Leave:  The U.S. is only one of three countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity/paternity leave. AWIS advocates for strong paid family and medical leave policies that can help families take time off for caregiving responsibilities, as well as their own medical needs, without the need to drop out of the STEM pipeline and put their economic security at risk. 

·       Mitigating Implicit Bias: Studies confirm that most people have “implicit associations” –or unconscious social stereotypes –often associating science with men. AWIS resources include proven practices to decrease bias in the STEM workplace, including awards and recognition.

·       Pay Equity:  The female-to-male earnings ratio has not shown a statistically significant annual increase since 2007, according to the national Census Bureau. AWIS research shows that: (1) women in the STEM professions experience salary inequities from an early point in their careers; (2) salary differences between men and women in STEM vary significantly with years of experience and field of employment; (3) pay gaps occur across all employment sectors, but vary within each STEM field. AWIS asserts that with a growing number of women entering the workforce, particularly in the STEM fields, closing the wage gap now will help ensure equal opportunity in the workforce in the future.

·       Funding Equity: AWIS research illustrates myriad gender gaps in STEM relative to access to venture capital, startup funding, technology transfer, angel investments, seed funding, and research and innovation grant funding. Our advocacy efforts have worked to address each of these issues, including working with federal funding agencies to help them audit their review processes and hosting national cross-sector innovation and entrepreneurship summits with dialogue among stakeholders from industry, academia, and government.

Q:  In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons for the low STEM participation of girls and women nationally?

Metcalf: For the past several decades, the majority of efforts to address the low participation rates of women in STEM have focused solely on the recruitment of girls and women into existing STEM programs and workplaces with limited success.  For example, over the past 40 years, some broad disciplinary fields, like the life sciences, have experienced higher levels of women’s participation in terms of degree matriculation than others, like computing, where matriculation is actually declining. However, even in fields where degree matriculation is at or above parity, these achievements have yet to translate into workforce outcomes. In 2013, 77% of women who obtained their highest degrees in the life sciences were working outside of the life sciences. Among those women who have been retained in the STEM workforce, the data reveal stratification in movement into senior and upper-level leadership positions in academia, government, and industry.

Continuing to use life sciences as an example, within academia, women comprise 46% of assistant professors, 31% of associate professors, and only 23% of full professors. Among the eighty biotechnology companies that filed initial public offerings in 2014, only six had women CEOs and 20% of these companies had no women in any leadership position. The figures are even more dismal for fields like computing and mathematical sciences, engineering, and the physical sciences. Much research points to the myriad stratification, cultural barriers, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, and biases women and people from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds experience in STEM.  These hindrances impact sense of scientific identity, self-efficacy, career choice, and fit. They also influence workload, hiring, space and resource allocation, salary and compensation package composition, evaluation, recognition and awards, research grant funding, promotion, tenure, access to key professional networks and mentors, movement into leadership roles, access to venture capital, startup funds, angel funds and core knowledge for scientific commercialization, and more. Our work suggests that until we address the overall structural, cultural and systemic issues within our STEM educational and work places, changes in participation are unlikely to occur.

Q:  How can we increase the number of girls and women in STEM nationally?

Metcalf: Academic and organizational leaders must understand the substance of the classroom and workplace experiences of students, researchers, and faculty in order to be effective advocates and champions for innovation and change.  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 for cultural and systemic change. We cannot simply wait for more women to enter into STEM and expect change to happen on its own. We must be agents of that change. By conducting research on our educational and work spaces, we educate ourselves on our cultures and cultural patterns and pasts, and can intentionally shape change to the benefit of all STEM participants. The research, policy, and practice that we do at AWIS provides leaders with the knowledge and tools necessary to effectively and equitably shape change.


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