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STEM diversity initiatives—what works, what doesn’t

Efforts to bring more women into STEM fields help but don’t go far enough, say experts from Germany and the US

Experts discuss efforts to bring diversity into the workplace at an event called "Engaging Women in STEM: Perspectives from the United States and Germany," held in December at the German Center for Research and Innovation in New York City. From left to right: Jan Wörner, Andrea Boese, Joann Halpern (moderator) and Iraj Kalkhoran. (Photos by Nathalie Schueller)While Germany is firmly committed to bringing more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, there is still much to be done before true diversity is achieved in the workplace.

That was the message of Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) in New York City, in her introduction to an event called "Engaging Women in STEM: Perspectives from the United States and Germany," held at GCRI in December.

Joann Halpern, PhDDr. Halpern referred to GCRI's September 2013 newsletter, which was dedicated to the topic (called MINT— mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology — in Germany).

The newsletter reports that 319 active initiatives intended to increase the percentage of women in MINT fields have resulted in an increase in female graduates in mathematics and statistics from 42 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of female graduates in the natural sciences grew from 27 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2011.

Yet despite these advances, speakers from DLR, the German Aerospace Center and national space agency agreed it's not enough.

Diversity is more than bringing in more women, said Dr. Jan Wörner, DLR's chairman of the Executive Board. He stressed that when "diversity meets innovation," the result is not that people are "generously tolerant" of each other, but rather that diversity is used "proactively as the instrument that takes advantage of different personalities, backgrounds, views and competencies."  

Andrea Boese, DLR's Chief Diversity Officer and head of the Department of Diversity and Equal Opportunities, emphasized that too many diversity initiatives are "fix-the-woman" approaches aimed at helping women fit into existing work structures, rather than strategies that revamp those structures from within, and bring diversity to the entire organization.

The United States also is committed to bringing women into STEM, and is making inroads in that direction, observed Dr. Iraj Kalkhoran, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Academics at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. However, despite the more welcoming climate, a recent survey of more than a million high school graduates showed that close to 90 percent were not interested in a STEM career. "The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is falling at a time when the need for those skills is on the rise," he said.

The 'Artemis Effect'

DLR's Dr. Wörner documented "the long history of women being ignored in the space program." He showed a picture of the United States' Mercury 7 group, hailed in the media at the time as "the seven brave men ready to fly to the moon," side by side with a picture of the Mercury 13 — women who trained the same way as the men but were never given an option to fly.

Dr. Wörner showed a picture of the United States' Mercury 7 group, hailed in the media at the time as "the seven brave men ready to fly to the moon," side by side with a picture of the Mercury 13 — women who trained the same way as the men but were never given an option to fly. 

Jan Wörner, PhDHe noted that in the early 1960s, US President John F. Kennedy said, "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal – before this decade is out – of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" (emphases per Wörner). After the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, when men did indeed land on the moon, the number of STEM PhDs — mainly men — "increased dramatically," Dr. Wörner said. That phenomenon became known throughout Europe as the "Apollo effect," meaning that the Apollo mission served as an inspiration to a generation of young men.

Dr. Wörner explained that DLR values moving along a "seamless chain" from invention to innovation, using basic research and applied research to develop new products in the areas of aeronautics, energy, transportation and security. "What's needed along the way are some disruptive ideas — and I'm sure these cannot come only from men," he said. "We need men and women working together in order to move forward. In that sense, diversity becomes a tool for creating new ideas in all the areas we work in."

Diversity includes the engagement of young people, he added. "In the past, that meant traditional mentoring — old guys like me telling young people what to do to create a future based on experience. But that is completely wrong. What we need is reverse mentoring —young people and older people mentoring each other — to create a future based on experiments, and mentoring between the genders to ensure a future based on diversity."

Dr. Wörner concluded by observing that the god Apollo had a twin sister named Artemis, considered the goddess of women and children. "What we need now is not just an Apollo effect to continue to bring men into STEM, but also an Artemis effect to bring in women. I have no idea how to do it, but I am sure that we need it."

Organizational ambivalence

Andrea BoeseBoese agreed that mentoring and role models have a place in diversity efforts, and that these and other strategies have helped create the organization's current situation: 7,700 employees across 16 sites and various satellite offices around the world, with a workforce made up of 30 percent women. However, until very recently, the main focus of DLR's diversity efforts was on promoting women and helping them reconcile the demands of motherhood and careers.

"The big change is that our diversity policy now is anchored in the organization as a cross-cutting topic that affects all levels of staff, in all areas," she said. "I report directly to the chairman of the board, so we have commitment from the top, which is very important." The policy encompasses not only gender diversity, but also international diversity — emphasizing intercultural competencies and activities — and generational diversity.

Underlying the new policy are commitments to:

  • Perceiving, accepting and utilizing both differences and commonalities among the staff and the company's partners
  • Supporting the unfolding of the full potential of individual talents
  • Ensuring non-discriminatory and fair treatment for all, regardless of age, gender, special needs, cultural background, lifestyle, family status and way of thinking.

Boese referred to business historian Alfred D. Chandler's landmark theory that organizational structure needs to follow strategy. "That concept says that if you have a strategy or goal, the structure needs to adapt to realize it," she explained. "With respect to getting more women involved in STEM fields, the reality, until now, is that strategies have followed structure. So we have a certain structure in DLR, for example, and we see which programs can be implemented in the existing structure. Instead, we need to look at how we can implement programs that change the entire organizational culture, which means changing its structure, as well."

Pointing to the concept of role models, she noted that while it's important to have successful women mentoring younger ones, peer-to-peer mentoring would likely be more effective.  

"When I was younger, I wouldn't have had a clue what it meant if a woman told me how she made her way up through management," she said. "Personality and character are most important, meaning both women and men could be wonderful role models for women, as could women just a few years older than those they are mentoring."

Alluding to the  "fix-the-woman" approach, she explained that most traditional mentoring and workshop programs exclude the very stakeholders — male leaders — who could make a difference in the organization. The idea that women need to learn how to reconcile work with family life, child care and perhaps elder care "stigmatizes women as deficient and blames them for not being able to manage all these roles successfully," she said.

Although DLR is committed to diversity across the continuum, the organization has what's known as a "change-oriented preservation culture," she explained. "The organization shows a strong ambivalence between its distinctive orientation towards innovation and change, and its strongly conservative hierarchical structure."

This ambivalence is exemplified by the fact that while a third of DLR's staff are women, no women sit on the executive board — and yet the organization promoted Boese in a newly created position to spearhead the types of  programs that could yield fundamental changes in its culture and structure. Bringing true diversity to the organization "is a major, complex challenge for top management," she said. "I believe we will see changes, but we will need to go through a long, painful process to get there."

Boosting STEM appeal and retention

Iraj Kalkhoran, PhDDr. Kalkhoran talked about the US STEM experience. He observed that while STEM fields generally are male dominated, women are much better represented in fields such as chemical and biological engineering that make an impact on society and social wellbeing. He also observed that traditional fields such as mechanical or civil engineering are undergoing transformation to include fields such as medicine and environmental studies, which are more appealing to both women and men. More than 50 percent of students who start out majoring in engineering or technology do not graduate in the field they first enrolled in, he said. Moreover, many students with engineering degrees end up working in the financial industry, rather than in a field traditionally associated with engineering.

"In the bigger picture, we have a STEM issue, period," Dr. Kalkhoran stressed. "It becomes more pronounced when you talk about women, but overall, fewer than 16 percent of students — male or female — are pursuing STEM education in the United States." Polytechnic Institute of NYU has implemented a number of programs similar to those at DLR and elsewhere — role models, mentoring, networking — aimed at attracting women and promoting retention. The Institute also has made an effort to transform the classroom culture to emphasize "invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship," rather than simply sitting in a room and taking in information. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, "we can't do it all ourselves. Studies have shown that by the time young people get to college, it's often too late."

What's needed, Dr. Kalkhoran urged, are K-12 programs that educate not only students but also middle school and high school teachers about the importance of engineering in society. Starting as early as possible, "we need to demonstrate the beauty of engineering, that it is more than math and physics — that it's creativity, communication skills, team work and recognition of societal needs."

During the question and answer session that followed, Dr. Wörner described a K-12 initiative that DLR recently created. The company offers "school labs," in which students are invited not  simply to tour DLR but to actually do some experiments there — understanding how zero-gravity forces work, for example. DLR had discussed bringing scientists into classrooms but decided that having young people work on-site would be a more effective way of stimulating interest and enthusiasm, as well as providing a real-world idea of where they might ultimately want to work.

Boese closed the event by observing that several years ago, Germany faced a shortage of young women wanting to become police officers. In response, a popular daily soap introduced the character of a young woman who became a police officer. After that, "there was a huge increase in applications," she said.

"So we need daily soaps in Germany, in the US and everywhere that feature not just women engineers or women PhD student engineers but maybe some sexy male engineers as well." she concluded.

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Elsevier Connect Contributor

Marilynn LarkinMarilynn Larkin is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor for of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of the American Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer Reports,Vogue, Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.



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1 Archived Comment

Isobel Delussey February 13, 2014 at 11:52 am

I am a firm believer in early education setting and encouraging life long interests. Young children are naturally curious and if allowed, will experiment and enjoy learning. However when children are tested and graded daily from K1 on and teachers harried to get the percentages, there is no time to allow the development of thinking skills, collaborative skills, experimentation

and enthusiasm. Those who hold the power must ensure that teachers who have such vision and enthusiasm (not all are so careful selection is required)are placed at the heart of an elementary school with a roving STEM role.

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