The Future Is Today: Leverage Through Strategic Alliances

I am of the first generation of American women scientists who dared to say out loud, "I want to soar"-that is, professionally. As a few of us clawed our way up the steep and slippery slopes, we also showed the audacity and determination not to forgo the rewards and pleasures of family and personal lives. I am so proud of us. By any standards we have done well. But it is still lonely at the top. The climate is rather chilly, and many of us are hovering rather than taking off. We would like to ha

Nov 24, 1997
Jaleh Daie

I am of the first generation of American women scientists who dared to say out loud, "I want to soar"-that is, professionally. As a few of us clawed our way up the steep and slippery slopes, we also showed the audacity and determination not to forgo the rewards and pleasures of family and personal lives. I am so proud of us. By any standards we have done well. But it is still lonely at the top. The climate is rather chilly, and many of us are hovering rather than taking off. We would like to have the company of more women at the top-neither for moral reasons of social justice and the ideal of equity nor for selfish and myopic reasons, but because this great nation and the world as a whole will be losers unless we ensure that women's perspective is brought to bear, fully, on the national science and technology (S&T) enterprise.

We all can agree on the extraordinary importance of S&T in shaping our future and the quality of our lives. Yet, we have not paused long enough to assess the question of who is (and who is not) being served by any specific S&T agenda and its effects on the majority of the population. How can S&T be truly in the national interest if women's voices are anemically represented?

As a researcher, as an academic, and as president of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), I know firsthand about the problems faced by S&T professional women. I also have come to appreciate the much-needed work done by many women's and scientific organizations. But for their dedication to the cause, many of us would not be where we are. However, I feel, deep in my bones, that we now need a larger and bolder vision to lift us onto a higher plane. We need to ensure that there is equitable representation of women as our national S&T policy and agenda are shaped and conducted. We must consolidate our gains of the past three decades and seek a true transformation of the scene by changing the face of S&T at the very top, literally and figuratively. The very top must be the target because it provides the greatest leverage to affect lasting and meaningful change. It is akin to putting women in the cockpit so that they have control of the levers of power, rather than be passengers along for the ride. How do we do this? The short answer is that we must find ways to help women advance, in a timely manner, to senior-level managerial and leadership positions so that they are sufficiently credentialed to garner invitations to power-seats at the big national policy tables.

The positive interventions of the past three decades have resulted in the opening of educational doors to women in all S&T fields. In some fields, parity is being achieved even at the Ph.D. level. For example, in biological sciences women are receiving more than half of all bachelor's and master's degrees and more than 40 percent of all Ph.D.'s (Women and Science Conference Report, National Science Foundation, March 1997). But similar snapshots of engineering and the physical sciences show that women Ph.D.'s still constitute less than 20 percent of the total pool. Clearly, not all is well.

While in some scientific fields women have been filling the educational pipeline, swelling the lower professional ranks in proportionate numbers, they remain almost invisible at the top in government, academia, and industry. The presence of professionally mature and qualified women in disciplines with parity has led to the hope that as the numbers increase in the ranks, so will they at the top. But this has not been the case. Many women Ph.D.'s still find themselves in "off-the- ladder" support positions, rather than those that offer advancement to the very top, such as tenure-track positions in academia. These trends confirm that we are confused by a numbers myth: that more women in the pipeline would automatically mean more women at the top. While the glass ceiling is cracked in a few spots, for all practical purposes it is firmly in place. Even among women who are on promising tracks, there is "mid-career despair" and anxiety. The real, persisting problem is the status gap, which ultimately translates in limited and marginalized roles for women in the development of our national S&T policy.

In academia there are differences between men and women in rank as well as tenure status, as shown in NSF's Women in Science Conference Report. There are also salary gaps-rank by rank, year for year of experience. At major research universities, women hold less than 5 percent of science deanships and less than 10 percent of science department chairpersons are women. There are only three women medical deans, two women deans of agriculture, and two women deans of engineering. Statistics outside academia present similar patterns. In the 100-year history of the Nobel Prize, only 11 prizes have been awarded to women scientists (10 women; Marie Curie received it twice). And only about 5 percent of the National Academy of Sciences members are women.

These statistics leave little doubt that much work remains to be done if our nation is to truly benefit from the perspective of women in S&T. The end of the Cold War has ushered in an era of shifting national priorities: from producing machinery to win wars to a greater focus on human issues, manifested in complex social, environmental, and economic dynamics. As national needs change, along with global competition and cooperation, strategic alliances are needed to ensure an equitable role for women in designing a national science and technology agenda and policy suitable for the third millennium. The future is today! We must create it now, not tomorrow.

Many scientific and women's organizations are working to address the situation. The efforts, however, are diffuse and not coordinated. At times, the organizations are not fully aware of each other's efforts. A forum that will bring everyone together is lacking. I submit that we need a free- standing, national coalition made up of organizations supporting women in math, science, engineering, medicine, and technology-but not limited to women's groups. Such a strategic alliance will build and strengthen linkages among diverse and yet like-minded groups and facilitate progress on shared agendas. The aim is to have a "whole" that is greater than the sum of each part. The alliance will be ideally positioned to catalyze the formation of true coalitions of many groups, strengthen the collective impact of each organization, heighten the prominence of the leadership issue, facilitate a mechanism for streamlined funding, and provide a venue to gain enhanced returns on the investments of individual organizations.

Susan Berresford, president of the New York-based Ford Foundation, has expressed eloquently the need for nongovernmental organizations to seriously engage in meaningful partnerships to increase effectiveness and to provide a compelling vision for what needs to be done ("Nonprofits must work together to meet challenge of changing times," Board Member, November/December 1995, page 3). This is exactly the case I am making here. The proposed coalition is envisioned to be a broad-based, independent, highly coordinated, and multidisciplinary organization that provides effective and lasting linkages among a wide range of organizations. The ultimate goal of the alliance will be to ensure equitable representation of women in the development, formulation, and conduct of national S&T policy and agenda. The alliance will collaboratively identify persistent and emerging issues and will create, disseminate, and advocate nonpartisan policy options for addressing equity issues in all S&T professions. To ensure that proportionate numbers of women are at the national decision-making tables, career advancement and attainment of seniority by women in all S&T fields will be the pragmatic focus of the alliance.

Many institutions (women's groups, academia, foundations, government, industry, and S&T societies) do indeed play important roles in promoting the status of women in S&T professions. But there is power in numbers, so the collective impact of a coalition will be far greater than what each organization can generate. In addition, the alliance will achieve its mission by (1) building on the strengths of member organizations through collective impact; (2) creating new partnerships to fully leverage resources and add value to the existing activities; (3) providing a new forum to foster communication, collaboration, and networking; (4) developing policy statements on related issues of national scope; (5) raising public awareness of the issues in a unified way; (6) bringing greater focus on S&T work force issues; (7) providing funding agencies with a streamlined mechanism for support of multiple groups; and (8) bringing together women's and men's networks.

The three Cs-communication, collaboration, and coordination- will be of primacy in the functioning of the alliance. Its specific goals will include ensuring women's access to senior leadership and policy positions, promoting timely advancement of women's careers in all S&T fields and work sectors, and fostering broad and active participation and input by the public in developing the national S&T agenda. To enhance public awareness, its members will write editorials and op- eds. To increase the number of women holding senior policy positions and receiving prestigious awards and honors, the alliance will monitor the availability of such opportunities and with gather, orchestrate, ensure, and support nominations and appointments of women to those positions and honors.

We will know that true equity has been reached only when women's participation in all aspects and levels of S&T is entirely natural, unremarkable, and taken for granted. And ironically, when this vision comes to be reality, the business of the proposed alliance will be finished. So, I am in fact suggesting the establishment of an entity with a sunset clause, an organization seeking its own closure. Let's create the future today!

Jaleh Daie is a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is also president of the Association for Women in Science and chairwoman-elect of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, both based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: