2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology,
Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University
Women (AAUW), finds that bias, often unconscious, continues to limit
women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields. Research by Dr. Mahzarin
Banaji, a former AAUW fellow, and her colleagues at Harvard University shows
that even individuals who consciously reject negative stereotypes about women
in science often still believe that science is better suited to men than women
at an unconscious level. These unconscious beliefs or implicit biases may be
more powerful than explicitly held beliefs and values simply because we are not
aware of them.
This past week I attended the Inclusive Astronomy conference in Nashville and there was an incredible talk by Kenjus Watson about microaggressions. This term gets brought up frequently in feminist and equity conversations, but a lot of people I've talked to don't really understand what it means, or how microaggressions manifest in everyday life. In fact, I was guilty of one of the microaggressions that Mr. Watson highlighted, when I recently asked a trans* woman what the trans* community thought about Caitlin Jenner's transition.
I am a white woman, and I have spent most of my life not thinking about race. Not in a "we live in a post-racial America" type of way, but just that on an everyday level it didn't really come up that much. Of course when something overtly racist happened, I would notice and be upset by it. I knew that people of color (POC) are underrepresented in STEM, I thought this was a bad thing, and I wanted to increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URM) in Astronomy and Physics. But overall, race and racism was an occasional thought that would briefly come to my mind, and then quickly leave.
Last year several major tech companies released data revealing their lack of workplace diversity compared with the general population. This year three of the best-known companies have committed substantial funding to increasing the numbers and success of women and underrepresented minorities in their firms and in the industry as a whole. This is a major experiment worth following by the astronomy community. Not only do the tech companies employ many people who started in astronomy, but those of us in academia can learn from what works in an industry facing similar challenges to our own.
Intel is a standout. In January they announced $300M for engineering scholarships and for support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In June they announced the creation of a $125M venture fund to support startups led by women and minorities. As the Intel Capital VP explained, this is a wise investment: private firms led by women do better than those led by men, yet 98% of venture capital funding goes to firms led by men. These investments are nearly 1% of Intel's total revenue in 2014 ($425M of $55.9B). Although they are not annual investments, Intel aims to make an impact in its own hiring over five years, so let's call it 0.15% of total revenue per year.
While it's not exactly tithing, Intel's investment is still very impressive. In 2014, MIT's revenue was $3.1B. 0.15% of that is $4.7M. If one counts all the student financial aid and faculty startup packages for women and underrepresented minorities, then we exceed that amount. Excluding these items, I'm not sure that we do.
Google is also impressive in its funding and visibility on diversity matters. In May, they committed $150M to diversity, after announcing that they had devoted $115M to diversity initiatives in 2014, which is 0.17% of their 2014 revenue. I've been unable to find any details on their investments, so I give Intel greater credit for their transparency. On the other hand, Google leads the tech industry in unconscious bias training including development of an excellent video and workshops that are being given to most of its workforce. Academia generally lags in such efforts, although the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) has made impressive strides and offers their workshops to other organizations. Google also permits some of its employees to devote 20% of their time at work to focus on diversity projects.
The other major tech company in the news for diversity funding is Apple, which committed $50M in March to supporting HBCUs and the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). This is an impressive contribution, but is less than 0.03% of Apple's 2014 revenue. Still, by focusing on the STEM pipeline, they have a chance to make big impact.
These efforts are noteworthy and are in the nation's interest, as well as the self-interest of the tech companies. Will other companies and academia step up to the plate?