Engaging Women in STEM: Perspectives from the United States and Germany
• German Aerospace Center
• German Center for Research and Innovation
Dr. Jan Wörner, Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center, discussed ways to increase gender diversity in STEM. He noted the importance of acknowledging that men and women often have different motivations when pursuing fields of study and career choices. One example of this is that women tend to want to know why they are completing certain tasks and what value their research contributes. Dr. Wörner also cited the need for more visible role models. In the 1960s, for example, NASA’s Apollo Mission to the moon sparked the interest of many young boys to pursue a career in engineering or a related field. This heightened interest following the space mission soon became known as the “Apollo Effect.” Alluding to Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, Dr. Wörner emphasized the need for a modern-day “Artemis Effect.” To achieve this, he noted that it is important to recognize that girls particularly listen to role models who are only a few years their senior. In other words, reaching different age groups requires age-appropriate role models. Successfully engaging women in STEM will ultimately enable companies to capitalize on diverse personalities, backgrounds, and viewpoints to create disruptive ideas leading to innovation.
Andrea Boese, Chief Diversity Officer and Head of the Department of Diversity and Equal Opportunities at the German Aerospace Center, explained that in the past decade DLR has focused on the reconciliation of maternity time and career, offering flexible working models, support for child care, and mentoring for women. In the future, however, the DLR board aims to attract more women to its institution by raising the number of female Ph.D. students, scientists, leading employees, and professors. This commitment from top management is integral to the success of the organization’s diversity policies. It will also help overcome the “strategy follows structure issue,” where companies often create a strategy that fits with pre-existing institutional structures, ultimately counteracting any real intended change. Other barriers to diversity include the “unwritten rules” of conduct within an organization. Company norms are institutionalized by the leading group – i.e. men – often leaving female employees unintentionally excluded. Ms. Boese also suggested avoiding hosting seminars and workshops designed only for women. Such workshops, she believes, are counterproductive as they imply that women have deficiencies to resolve in order to conform to the male standard. Instead, she stressed embracing an all-encompassing diversity policy, pertaining to gender, nationality, and age, to promote societal change. One successful example in Germany is the initiative “Girls’ Day” and “Boys’ Day,” which offers adolescents of both genders the chance to gain insight into non-traditional careers.
Dr. Iraj Kalkhoran, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Academics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, presented statistics indicating that the representation of women in the fields of science and mathematics is less of an issue than it is in tech and engineering fields. Of the male and female students who start an engineering degree, fewer than 50 percent complete it. To increase the number of engineers in general, it is imperative to demonstrate the importance of engineering in today’s society and to emphasize that the discipline extends beyond “just math and physics;” the field also requires creativity, communication skills, team work, and recognition of societal needs. In a competitive global job market with a bourgeoning demand for technical skills, Dr. Kalkhoran reiterated that highlighting the high salaries and financial security of STEM careers to prospective students is not something to overlook. To deliver these various messages as early as possible, NYU-Poly has developed targeted initiatives to reach students interested in STEM and to foster pre-college attraction to its campus. One of its most successful outreach initiatives targeting young women has been a series of YouTube videos by NYU Engineering Undergraduate Admissions, which feature female undergraduates sharing their passion for science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.
In the hearty discussion that ensued, moderator Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation, provided audience members the opportunity to share their personal experiences and views on the topic.