Things that work for STEM subjects

April 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

A few years back, I researched some of what the STEM disciplines have done to recruit and retain women.  The literature in this field is far more developed than in philosophy and I recommend it highly for anyone interested in these issues.  At any rate, here are a few suggestions, culled from my reading and that my department has in some cases tried to apply to our own circumstance.

To combat pernicious stereotypes and implicit bias:
1.  Make sure materials that address departmental accomplishments and such don’t inadvertently conceal philosophers who are women.  E.g., Rather than posting on a webpage that “Professor X” won an award, post that “Professor Jane X” won an award.

2.  Evaluate “high prestige” positions within the department and scrutinize how they may divide along gender.  E.g., are research assistantships most often given to men?  Given that RAs are more prestigious than TAs, that can signal a problem.  Likewise, check for the same in the more informal status-conferring roles available to students.  Are women students asked, e.g., as often as men to attend special events with distinguished visitors?  To take a lead in such events?

3.  Regularly assess admissions patterns and graduation patterns to identify problems.  E.g., if women form a significantly higher percentage of the applicant pool than they do of the admissions list, this should be cause to look more closely at whether implicit bias is playing a role and to evaluate the admissions process more generally.

4.  While it’s good of course to have groups/events designed specifically to mentor women students, these become far more effective at cultivating a better *general* climate if all the signals are there that they are supported and sustained by the department at large.  Avoid the appearance of a “Women in Philosophy” group being a niche group and instead regularize it as part of the workings of the department.  This can be done by ensuring, e.g., that the group has financial support if necessary, its events are part of the regular, full department calendar, etc.

5.  Signal the departmental commitment to valuing women’s presence and contribution by being attentive to special concerns that may arise.  E.g., if safety is a concern for women working late hours, make sure that the department communicates to them about what campus provisions are available for transportation.  Even if they already know what’s available, acknowledging such issues is important to the psychology of all involved.

These are of course all modest suggestions, but their modesty in part recommends them as something most departments that have the collective will can readily do.

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