meeting—which wasn't that long ago, because I am a convert from chemistry—and even at my age it was still intimidating to go there and be surrounded by 20,000 men.
The argument was made that small topical meetings facilitate better networking. At Gordon Conferences, you sit down at a table with people, talk to them one meal after another for a whole week, and they actually get to know you and you get to know them. Then, miraculously, when these people see your proposals and papers, they look better than they would have had you not had the opportunity to meet them. This kind of networking is a very valuable aid—a sort of short-term tactic —at all levels, for both students and senior professionals.
Another topic that we discussed extensively is inclusive language. We talked about how many of us have fought this battle repeatedly: the battle of “he or she.” It really matters to keep saying “he or she,” even though many people have thrown up their hands in defeat. Among chemists and chemical engineers, this has been a hard fight. Many of our colleagues won't use this language—at least many of mine just won't do it. I confess that recently I have not put as much energy into this as I should, but I will return to my institution with renewed commitment to inclusive language.
Other stories in our group led to longer-term strategies. One of those is having leaders who care. In my own department, when Jan Sengers was chair of chemical engineering at Maryland, he made it one of his high priorities to diversify the department. A long-time practice in academia is that you never hire one of your own students —your student finishes and is expected to find a job somewhere else, but certainly not in your own institution.
We had a fine student, a young African-American woman, who was a chemical engineer. There are five of those in the country, as we learned earlier. Jan worked out a plan that allowed her to go elsewhere for a postdoc, but then we offered her a job. She came back to Maryland, where she is now a faculty member and has just won an NSF CAREER award.
Setting that kind of tone—violating an unwritten law and getting away with it—is moving the institution in a direction that it needs to go. Establishing that kind of caring and that kind of leadership is a long-term goal, and we need it among chairs and deans. But all of us can be leaders. All of us can step forward and help as senior professionals to move things in that direction.
Another long-term goal is to generate critical masses. Several members of our discussion group brought up this issue. Let me come back to AIChE and ACS meetings. If you begin to find even a fluctuation such that there are enough women in one place to have a conversation, you can make it happen. If you can force such an aggregation, then you will begin to feel more a part of things and be more comfortable in that environment. This won't happen overnight, but it is certainly a long-term goal.
Visibility is related to the shorter-term goal of networking. Our speakers raised this point this morning when we talked about getting national prizes, being elected to the National Academies. A long-term goal would be to move women chemists and chemical engineers toward more visibility in the community. Women will then be considered for these kinds of rewards.
Lastly, as a long-term strategy what we would look for is respect for personal priorities. I phrase this carefully because issues of women in the workplace often get boiled down to the issue of day care. But children need day care for only short periods in their lives, while other family-related problems continue. At my age I find increased responsibilities for taking care of sick friends or elderly relatives. These personal priorities—issues in your personal life that really matter and that have to be taken care of—more often fall to women than to men. This is a lifelong problem—it is not just a problem in your childbearing years—so respect for those kinds of personal priorities in the workplace matters for our careers.
We also talked about schemas and what I would call antidotes to schemas. One antidote might still be to use inclusive language. Another antidote is mentoring, in which we can help one another to see through these schemas and to sidestep some of this classification of women that we find handicapping.