Women are resilient. Let’s inspire them

Susan Heinzelman

Despite the hundreds of initiatives nationwide promoting increased participation by women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields, women remain a minority in STEM careers in the United States. In 2016 only 25.5 percent of computer and only 14.2 percent of architecture and engineering positions were held by women. For women of color, this gender gap is even wider. Asian, black women and Latinas made up slightly less than 10 percent of working scientists and engineers in 2015.

The consequences of this underrepresentation extend well into the post-graduation careers of these populations. For example, women get cited in scientific publications less often than men and, as a result, they get offered fewer prestigious opportunities, thus earning less than men over their lifetimes. Moreover, they contend on a daily basis with feelings of isolation, a hostile, male-dominated work environment and lack of effective mentors. In the United States, 32 percent of women who enter the STEM fields leave their job within a year.

How do we change the long-term prospects for women and other underrepresented groups so that they are not constantly battling the social and cultural biases that marginalize them in classrooms, in laboratories and in the workforce? One strategy that won’t work is to add women and stir! We’ve tried this in a number of professions — including the University — without success because the numbers do not add up to a critical population who might push back against bias and marginalization. The addition of a few diverse individuals (often merely a token effort to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to diversity) does nothing to change the structural and systemic bias against women and “the others.” 

Instead of asking those who already carry the burden of representing their gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality to change themselves so that they might “fit” into the system, we need to teach them how to be resilient in the face of daily disparagement and bias so that they, together with their allies, can change the system. 

Here at UT, we have a program that does precisely that. INSPIRE, a women’s undergraduate leadership program funded through and directed by the Center for Women’s & Gender Studies, supports STEM students through mentoring, social awareness and career advancement. INSPIRE offers a unique opportunity for its participants — members of an underrepresented population and more often than not, first-generation college students — to come together across disciplines, schools, areas of interest, as well as across ethnicity and life experience to learn the importance of diversity and the necessity of communicating across cultures. 

Students develop inclusive leadership skills by reflecting on their own individual and social identities. They learn how structural exclusion not only diminishes the potential of each individual, but how it also harms the collective as well as practice outreach strategies that make a difference throughout their lives and careers. While students are provided professional development workshops, travel to conferences and assistance as they work on group and personal projects, the biggest impact of this program might be that it provides the participants a safe space and the time to develop the resilience necessary to succeed both in college — all participants in INSPIRE graduate in 4 years or less — and in their careers in what still remains a predominantly male-dominated world.

 For more information about INSPIRE, please contact Nancy Ewert, senior program coordinator at  512-471-5680 or [email protected] 

Heinzelman is the director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT.