To ensure a robust workforce in the jobs of the future, diversifying the so-called STEM fields has become a national (and local) obsession.
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Bias literacy coming to business near you
The term technology transfer refers to university discoveries that eventually become the focus of business development, but what about research transfer?
Dr. Molly Carnes
The findings of Dr. Molly Carnes, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Women’s Health Research, pertain to STEM related academic units, but don’t be surprised if they make their way to private employers.
Her previous research into “bias literacy” among STEM departments at UW–Madison, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and her development of tools to “break the bias habit,” are designed to promote equal opportunity for people in previously underrepresented groups. This is particularly true of leadership positions, where organizational perception of who makes a good leader has been influenced by certain stereotypes and resulting unconscious (implicit) biases.
An example, Carnes notes, is how tall men are assumed to be commanding and assertive and therefore ideal leaders, which impacts the opportunities available to women and men who don’t fit the masculine stereotype. About 15 percent of men are over 6 feet tall, but among the male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, more than 60 percent are over 6 feet tall, so the implicit assumption is that the more masculine appearing man is a better leader.
Carnes believes that change will come as people and organizations understand these implicit biases and engage in self-regulation with certain cognitive strategies to mitigate the damage. Says Carnes: “Our reasoning is that if you can get individuals in an organization to recognize and self-regulate the way assumptions about groups of people can lead to bias, then as with any cultural change, eventually the culture of the whole organization changes.”
STEMing a Caucasian male tide
When it comes to getting more girls and young women to consider STEM careers, it seems that every school is getting into the act.
Efforts to drive diversity in local institutions range from the UW–Madison Geoscience Department’s “Expanding Your Horizons” annual conference, specifically dedicated to helping middle school-aged girls explore STEM careers, or Madison College’s Early College STEM Academy, where high school juniors and seniors take college courses toward STEM degrees. These initiatives are among many offered at each institution.
Then there’s Edgewood College, which has partnered with the Badgerland Girl Scouts to help a greater variety of young people explore technology opportunities. Edgewood has played host to a series of Saturday programs on campus as part of the Girl Scouts’ “STEM Soup: Code Squad.” Over the past year, it has served more than 200 kindergarten-through-3rd grade girls across southwest and south-central Wisconsin, and Dr. Atreyee Sinha, an assistant professor in Edgewood’s Computing and Information Sciences Department, is determined to grow it.
According to Sinha, computing aptitude is not a barrier for girls, the social construct is. “They misconstrue a computing career as something that’s only for geeks and nerds who have no communication with the outside world,” Sinha says.
Girl scouts work in teams of two and, with the help of coding programs from Code.org and Google, they are challenged to write their own algorithms and brainstorm. Sinha hopes the girls’ biggest take-away isn’t just that girls can code, but also that computer programming is no different than any other problem-solving exercise people do in everyday life, whether it’s a chef preparing a dish with a new recipe or a filmmaker trying to make a screenplay come to life.
“They learn that problem-solving is something people do every day but in different contexts,” Sinha notes. Including the computing context.
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