Seven strategies for keeping women in STEM fields

(Reuters Health) - Women who enter science and engineering fields often leave prematurely – and if they stay, many don’t advance as quickly as their male counterparts. Now an academic panel has developed a seven-point plan for achieving gender equity in so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

The 28-member Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering Working Group hopes to “ensure that women not just enter science, but remain, compete, and truly excel in scientific careers.”

Women account for half the college-educated American workforce but only 28 percent of science and engineering workers, according to the National Science Board.

Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, who convened the panel, says STEM fields are too critical to leave behind half the nation’s brainpower.

Two of the panel’s suggestions involve direct financial support but would save money in staff retention, the panelists say. One is flexible family care spending awards that could enable travel to meetings and conferences, for example.

Another is “extra hands” awards - grants to pay for assistance in the office, laboratory or home.

Co-author Paola Arlotta, a Harvard University professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, won such an award at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Award helps sustain research productivity during child-rearing years. With it, Arlotta hired laboratory help when she was expecting her second child.

Balancing children and work responsibilities wasn’t her only struggle, however.

“They always boil it down to kids, and I don’t think that is really inclusive of the difficulties we face,” she said. For instance, early in her career, Arlotta needed to seek out female mentors.

“Personal relationships and institutional change are necessary for people to succeed,” said Dr. Claire Pomeroy, a panelist and president of the Lasker Foundation, which recognizes excellence in medical research.

When Pomeroy entered medicine, most of her mentors were men. She eventually became dean of the University of California-Davis medical school. “You have to really, really want it, and you have to have people in your life that help you at each stage,” she said.

Three more suggestions come under a heading of “Psychological and Cultural Strategies.” In a paper in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the panel urges institutions to incorporate implicit bias statements, gender-balanced external review and speaker selection committees, and to focus on education as a tool.

Implicit bias statements could reiterate commitments to equality by search committees, grant makers and conference organizers, they say. For example, Solomon explained, in the rush to book speakers, the most accessible are often confirmed quickly- without an earnest search for other possibilities.

Therefore, numbers six and seven are gender equity report cards and searchable databases.

A database of women in STEM fields would make it easier for search committees and conference organizers to identify eligible females, the panel says.

And gender equity report cards, the panelists say, could require institutions to maintain certain scores for funding eligibility.

Bias must be acknowledged if it’s to be avoided, said Christianne Corbett, an American Association of University Women senior researcher. “We tend to think women are not as competent in fields like science . . . without knowing anything about the people,” she said.

Corbett, who applauds the report, calls for gender-blind job application reviews.

“Nothing changes until there’s awareness,” Pomeroy said. “Leadership at the highest levels of research institutions should be aware of these challenges and opportunities.”

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation supported the panel.

SOURCE: Cell Stem Cell, online March 5, 2015.