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Chicago Women in STEM and Academia Initiative
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Lisanne M. Jenkins, Colleen R. Zaccard, Ana Vicente-Sanchez

 

Academic and professional women continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), particularly at advanced career stages and in leadership. Considering that the postdoctoral phase is now the typical career progression bottleneck in STEM, the Northwestern University Postdoctoral Forum (NUPF) recently established the Chicago Women in STEM and Academia Initiative to galvanize a local community supportive of early career women.

 

This initiative was embraced and sponsored by different Northwestern institutes and departments, and kicked off with an inaugural conference on March 15, at the Chicago campus. In addition to attracting close to 100 professionals at different career levels, the event was supported by over a dozen enthusiastic postdoctoral scholar and graduate student volunteers.

 

The initiative’s second annual event will be held on International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019 to build the local STEM community

 

A Conference Inspires Chicago Women in STEM

The day’s program included short presentations given by Northwestern organizations on benefits and resources available to their female employees, followed by a series of short talks by local women leaders in their respective STEM fields. The first speaker, Geri Donenberg, PhD, focused on inequalities facing women in an interactive small group discussion on gender bias in letters of recommendation, mentoring, and pay. She pointed out that ”if you don't ask, they won't give it to you.” Her recommendation was to simply gather and present the facts regarding average starting salary for the position being considered.

 

Our keynote speaker, Carol Tamminga, MD, shared a dilemma she faced on the first day of her residency, when she noticed that the signs to the restrooms read “women” and “surgeons.” The message delivered by Vicky Kalogera, PhD, was on the critical importance of persistence despite adversity in academia and STEM. Teresa Woodruff, PhD, dean and associate provost for graduate education in The Graduate School at Northwestern, discussed her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, where she met extraordinary women who are persisting in STEM fields in a climate where they are just now obtaining the right to drive. Nancy Schwartz, PhD, reflected on how the environment for women in STEM has changed since her early career, when gender bias was much more overt, and yet in other ways has stayed the same.

 

Attendees of the inaugural conference for Chicago Women in STEM Initiative posed questions to our speakers during an interactive panel discussion on women’s leadership in STEM

Attendees posed questions to our speakers during an interactive panel discussion on women’s leadership in STEM, giving speakers the opportunity to share more personal stories and viewpoints. The day closed with a round-table networking event focused on mentorship for early career women, facilitated by panelists and additional invited local role models in STEM. One key takeaway from the event was that the initiative should focus on building a local community of Chicago women in STEM. Such an enterprise will be stronger together than that of any individual institution or organization.

 

The Goals of Chicago Women in STEM Initiative

The initiative’s programming over the next year will focus on two interrelated goals. The first goal is to fill the mentoring gap for early career women in STEM at Northwestern. Over 50 percent of 75 pre-conference survey question respondents indicated that the single most critical resource and/or support needed to help them succeed as a woman in STEM and/or academia was mentorship, a mentorship network, or a professional network of women. In response, the initiative is currently establishing inter-disciplinary peer mentoring circles for postdoctoral scholars and students.

 

Chicago Women in STEM Initiative organizers plan to raise community awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on diversity and inclusion

A large network of local professional women in STEM will support the peer mentoring circles. Members will meet monthly to pursue established objectives and faculty participation will be encouraged in an informal setting without requiring an ongoing time commitment. The main goal of the mentor circles is to positively affect participant’s sense of belonging to the STEM community and self-efficacy. The mentor circles also provide opportunities for professional development and networking across career levels and disciplines.

 

The initiative next plans to raise community awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on diversity and inclusion in STEM at a second annual community-building event. As a complement to the mentoring circles, the initiative’s second annual event will be held on International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019 to build the local STEM community. Pervasive cultural biases related to gender and STEM efficacy impact not only the perception of women and subsequently their opportunities for advancement, but also their performance and perception of their own abilities. Hence, the theme of the half-day interactive event will be on recognizing and countering implicit bias as well as the inter-related challenges of stereotype threat and imposter syndrome.

 

Global Need for Ongoing Local Efforts

Globally in 2013, women accounted for less than one third of individuals employed in scientific research and development (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). Women comprise around one quarter of those in STEM occupations in the United States (US Census Bureau, 2013). In 2013, 40.6 percent of doctorate holders employed in academia in science and engineering were women, and only 29.5 percent full-time senior faculty were women (National Science Board, Science and Engineering indicators, 2016). These statistics highlight the urgent need for intervention at the institutional and local levels.

 

The Chicago Women in STEM Initiative welcomes the participation of individuals as well as local organizations, and can be contacted by email at women@nupf.org. Their ongoing efforts represent postdoctoral scholars taking the lead to develop a diverse supportive local environment for women in STEM, which in turn can enhance discovery and innovation to benefit our global society.

 

Lisanne M. Jenkins, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, member of the NUPF Career & Professional Development Committee, and main organizer of the 2018 Women in STEM and Academia event.

 

Colleen R. Zaccard, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, and Chair of the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative.

 

Ana Vicente-Sanchez, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Urology at Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, and Chair or the Career & Professional Development Committee at NUPF.

 

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