As we celebrate International Women's Day, it is important to reflect upon accomplishments in gender equity in science and engineering, while also recognizing the significant work still left to be done.
As a faculty member in a biomedical engineering program at a U.S. institution, it is pleasing to hear that, as of 2017, women earned 44% of bachelor’s degrees awarded from our programs . Yet, this number has idled since the early 2000s. Further, the pipeline to advanced degrees, as well as to careers in industry and academia, has been leaky – only 39.1% of doctoral degrees were awarded to women in 2017, while only 22.7% of faculty tenured or on the tenure track are women .
Dr. Naomi Chesler, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works to understand this disparity and identify ways to eliminate it.
In her recent article, “A How-To Guide for Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Biomedical Engineering” , she outlines different ways in which we can foster equity. She notes that, “it is everyone’s responsibility to see inequities, speak up, and develop solutions to these problems”.
For me, pursuing equity often leads to the question, ‘What can I do to help you?’ – a common response with good intentions that places undue burden on under-represented groups to both educate me (us) and suggest activities for me. Moreover, this question suggests that they need my help; in reality - I need help! - recognizing how my gender, race, and ethnicity provide advantages that are not shared by individuals outside of my group.
In the article, Chesler suggests that a more effective approach is to first recognize and understand my (your) own privilege, and then use these insights to identify ways to correct inequities. Coupled to this, we must listen to those that are experiencing inequity, and recognize that our perception of their situation may be shaped by our implicit biases. Then, we must work cooperatively to change the system, while making sure to acknowledge the contributions of under-represented groups when successful in achieving positive change.
To truly listen, I (we) must avoid common pitfalls. We must:
1) Overcome fear of talking about difficult subjects - racism, sexism, and other “isms”
2) Recognize and avoid microaggressions, defined by Chesler as, “insults that the giver doesn’t recognize as insults”
3) Avoid complacency about existing conditions while missing persistent problems with attrition and discrimination
4) Realize that you’re going to make mistakes, which is OK, as long as you learn from them and improve because of them
By establishing a culture of inclusivity, Chesler says, “we will be rewarded by the ideas, designs, devices, and discoveries of a new generation of problem solvers and thought leaders who bring diverse experiences and perspectives”.
 Yoder, B. L. “Engineering by the Numbers.” ASEE, 2019.
 Chesler, N. C. “A How-To Guide for Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Biomedical Engineering.” Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 2019 DOI: 10.1007/s10439-019-02223-2 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10439-019-02223-2