March is Women’s History Month—an annual reminder of the many contributions women have made in our society. During this time of reflection, we can simultaneously see the evolution of our society and the lack of progress as it relates to women across all sectors of modern society.
In year 2022—a time of electric self-driving cars and app-controlled “smart homes”—we are still seeing headlines about the first women appointed to leadership positions in various sectors of the American workforce. Scroll through your news feed and you’re likely to find a headline about a first woman CEO at a major corporation or a first woman dean at a four-year university. These accolades are indeed cause for celebration, yet they also leave me feeling bittersweet.
As a woman working to advance gender equality in STEM, I am too familiar with seeing and celebrating these firsts in an industry comprised of just 27% of women, according to statistics from the U.S. Census. To motivate and empower more young girls and women in these challenging fields, it’s important for them to see more female leaders who can show by example that they, too, can be a doctor, an astronaut, a president or any other role they could imagine. This, however, can be a challenge when women are still—in this modern day and age—fighting to break through the glass ceiling.
My students aren’t the only ones to gain from the advancement of women leaders. If we don’t prioritize gender equity, we all stand to fail. Speaking from the STEM world, I’ll give you just one example. We can thank the women engineers whose research led to a redesign of car airbags. Without their expertise, our airbags would still be fitted to protect the “average male” sized crash test dummy, leaving people of various height and weight unprotected. I want my students to see that they, too, can make life-saving contributions as leaders in the engineering world—or whatever profession they choose. But to get them there, we need more role models to show them what’s possible.
I’m sure this is not the first time you’re reading about a call for more women leaders. There is plenty of research that breaks down the problems and reasons behind the lack of gender equity, pay gaps, access to systems in education, medicine, business, etcetera. We get it—gender inequity is still a longstanding problem. Now, let’s move this in another direction by asking one fundamental question: What can be done to change the systems that are maintaining the status quo?
Let’s switch the narrative here. Rather than “fixing” the excluded group, let’s talk about how we can hold the systems within the U.S. workforce accountable. Because at the end of the day, the most sustainable, effective way to enact change requires a culture shift—a major overhaul that is hard, uncomfortable and messy. It is seemingly unending work that requires clarity, courage and fortitude for overcoming the accompanying criticism and bullying for engaging in conversation, pushing for change and implementing new ways of doing things.
The hard truth is that as we, as a society, rely on systems to make sense of our world, and we are uncomfortable when our systems are disrupted. This requires many voices, inputs, dismantling and rebuilding. Even if we try and don’t succeed, our efforts will not be in vain. Sometimes moving the needle is enough to upend the paradigm.
About the Author
Ana Dison is a student programs director for Women in STEM (WiSTEM), a new initiative within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement that provides a wealth of STEM education outreach and mentoring programming to girls and women.