There is no doubt that America must dramatically increase the number of scientists, engineers, technicians, and mathematicians that we produce each year in order to remain competitive internationally. Yet, how do we proceed?
Several states have increased math and science requirements in high school. Unfortunately, most states are having difficulty finding enough qualified and credentialed teachers to cover the required courses. This is especially true in low income schools. There is also a problem in attracting science and math majors to pursue careers in teaching at the high school level.
Additionally, the talent pool is more diverse, with more women and minorities majoring in sciences and math. Even so, very few minorities and women enter the ranks of the academy as professors. A variety of institutional and cultural barriers still exist, sometimes discouraging women and minorities from obtaining tenure track appointments in their fields or for obtaining tenure and promotion.
The American Association of University Women recently issued a report that found women continue to face barriers in STEM fields from attitudes and practices that persist in education and industry. This limits the number of young women who seek careers in STEM fields, as well as those who advance in the ranks of science, industry, and the professoriate.
To promote the discussion, I am sharing the thoughts of a friend, Patty Lopez, who is an Hispanic woman engineer with several patents under her belt. She currently works as a Component Design Engineer for Intel. I met Patty Lopez almost ten years ago, while serving as Provost of New Mexico State University. At the time, Patty worked for HP and was an alum of NMSU. She serves on the Electrical Engineering Advisory Board and their Electrical and Computer Engineering Academy. Patty has consistently worked to recruit women and minorities into STEM fields. She has also mentored many students and engineering professionals.
The following is written by Dr. Patty Lopez:
I wanted your insight on what I believe is the key to changing organizational culture in technology, which starts with changing the culture of higher education. Through my many board roles (at NMSU and elsewhere) and mentorship, I have found that many engineering colleges are inhospitable to women and minorities.
To be truly competitive, our tech workforce needs to be diverse. There are three gatekeepers for under-represented minorities (URM’s) in STEM that exist in K-12, higher education, and professionally.
The first gatekeeper is pedigree, and by this I mean where you were educated. In K-12, the pedigree of your high school determines which colleges you will be accepted into, in higher education, the institution from which you received your BS, MS, or PhD determines where you can go next, and how much you will inevitably earn. ACT and SAT scores will cull those high school graduates without adequate preparation and success in math and science, but many who would succeed lack adequate financial resources to enter the better colleges and universities. Many departmental graduate school selection committees use pedigree as their first “cut” at culling the list of applicants.
The assumption is two-fold: having a pedigree is an accurate predictor of future success, and the lack of one is an accurate predictor future failure. We know from many successful entrepreneurs that this is not the case. Unfortunately, many times pedigree is used as a selection criterion without thought to the fact that it is selecting out some very talented candidates who may not have the mentorship and sponsorship to make their case. Yes, they can write a letter that details their accomplishments and their “distance traveled”, if they know enough to do so. But many unfortunately do not.
The second gatekeeper is organizational culture – the mechanisms at work that generate glass or concrete ceilings. We see it at work in technology, where it also affects women, not just URM’s. Where does this culture come from? Our K-12 teachers have mandatory multicultural education training in their degree programs that prepare them for how to avoid bias and prejudice in the classroom. Higher education does not have any such requirements.
The key to changing organizational culture in industry, government, and research institutions begins with multicultural education and micro-inequities awareness training at all levels of academia – and must be supported at the highest levels of administration. Once we have experienced our own biases and how we use them in our daily lives, we can start to see how they permeate everything we do, how we make judgments based upon them, and how we exclude. Graduates will hopefully take their new awareness with them to their employers, wherever that may be, and thus the organization culture within technology companies would change.
The third gatekeeper is environment – and by this, I mean the environment in our colleges and workplaces. No doubt you have read the physorg.com article “Of Girls and Geeks: Environment may be why women don’t like computer science”. If you look inside most tech companies, you will see aisles and aisles of cubicles, and standard layouts for cubicle desks and equipment. If you walk down the halls of many engineering departments, many lack art of any kind, much less art that is culturally inclusive.
I took my 14-year-old daughter, 14-year-old nephew, and 18-year-old niece to UCSD last week to visit the engineering department there. Though the external campus was beautiful, we walked through the Jacobs School of Engineering and the majority of walls were bare, aside from some highly technical posters on various subjects. In the new Computer Science and Engineering building, again, very little art to entice shy, young, aspiring computer scientists and engineers into the building. We walked down the halls of the second floor, and while the interior offices might be highly personalized, the exterior halls were not, save for one post-doc with a cartoon on the door labeling himself “indentured servant”.
To the prospective student who has had mentors and sponsors in STEM, that experience alone would not deter them from entering. To the URM who has experienced many “closed doors”, it increases the sense of not belonging, not feeling welcomed, and that this is not a place where they can be successful. Never mind that they may be more resourceful, resilient, and just as talented as their pedigreed peers, but perhaps not as polished.
All three gatekeepers can be addressed through awareness. I have had the unique opportunity to experience all of them (in particular, barriers to academic positions upon receipt of my PhD), which is why I am so passionate on these issues. Perhaps you’ve had a chance to read Dr. Richard Tapia’s article on hiring and developing minority faculty at research universities (link is below).
Richard’s article strikes a chord when he shares the story of his talk "Why the Berkeley Math Department Would Never Hire Me." I could give several variants on that talk, from my own experiences. The irony is that I’m just the sort of person that industry and academia need – the sort of person who can be the diverse voice, the person who offers inclusiveness, sponsorship, and mentorship, the change agent that is needed to move women and minorities forward, if only the gatekeepers would let me pass through.
To implement a multicultural education program within a university, it must be supported at the highest levels, and training must happen at these levels on down the chain of command to the lowest level. How feasible is such a program? What are the advantages a university with such a program can demonstrate? How can they market themselves to compete for the best and brightest students? What if funding agencies would give priority to funding universities with this designation? What if accreditation organizations used this as a factor in accreditation decisions? I think this would certainly accelerate the adoption of such programs, leveling the playing field across the board.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.