Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resource Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and co-author of The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science, offered remarks to close the conference, beginning with an illustration of the power of context. She related a comment by a scientist working at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, who remarked that Trieste is the only place where, when a black man walks down the street, people assume he is a scientist.
Malcom described her view of how individuals and institutions may move from addressing barriers faced by talented women of color in a piecemeal fashion to a strategy that is holistic. Calling forth a football metaphor, she urged her audience to gain a nuanced understanding of the game they are in. She described how football players employ both play books and game plans. In academia, play books are being used, increasingly and to some benefit. But accumulating successes will happen only when individuals and institutions pull together a game plan. Interventions to maximize American talent by advancing talented women of color must be selectively and wisely employed according to the context and climate of each institution.
Play books contain options for how to address a specific situation. In academia this may mean that, for example, if an institution’s postdoctoral fellows who are people of color have fewer publications than fellows who are white, mentoring and writing programs are established to address this. More important than a play book, however, is a game plan. A game plan guides choices of which plays are used given a specific context. What is the game being played and how is it played in different corners of the institution? What strategies may be effective given the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different individuals and organizational structures involved?
Malcom also stressed the importance of professional societies. Just as football players are members of the National Football League, academics have their professional societies, and she urged women of color to be visible in their professional, disciplinary contexts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has attempted to make its meetings (functionally) smaller in order to create communities within the larger professional community. It does so by hosting networking events for specific groups of people, including for women of color.
Malcom noted ways in which football games and the academic life are similar. In both, the game has rules. In football, if you break a rule, you are subjected to a well-defined penalty levied by a referee. But in many academic institutions, breaking a rule brings unevenly distributed penalties or none at all. Likewise, both arenas have risks. Fortunately for ambitious, talented women of color, a Ph.D. in the sciences or technology is portable and can be well employed outside of academia. But Malcom noted that another path is to choose to stay in the game and improve the conditions for the rookies coming in.
Football and academia also have their differences, to which Malcom recommends that we pay attention. Football coaches exert great effort looking for talent. In addition, in football a player’s or coach’s reputation only carries him so far. If players or coaches arrive with great reputations but do not perform, they’re out. Conversely, they may come from places unheard of but when they perform they’re in—embraced, supported, and helped to thrive.
As game plans go, Malcom held a high view of the NSF-funded ADVANCE program, as it requires taking a holistic view of the institution. Malcom had a series of comments for multiple audiences about the plays contained in the academic playbook of interventions for maximizing American talent:
• There is a need for data disaggregated by race, sex, discipline, citizenship, and other traits, because we cannot change what we do not understand.
• Mentors, sponsors, and coaches are critical. Today, young women of color do not have to become something they have never seen. Senior women have a responsibility to make the path visible and easier for junior scholars.
• We encourage publications by encouraging publishing with others as well as building broader partnerships.
• Scholars must make and nurture professional connections. Women of color must regularly attend the major conferences in their fields and expand their professional networks.
• Women of color in tenure-track positions must make sure that they understand the policies and procedures that will guide their advancement in the academic, institutional community. They must ask senior faculty and department chairs about the requirements for moving to the next level and taking a leadership role within the department.
• Institutions need to ensure that the selection of faculty is more equitable throughout the recruitment and advancement processes.
In addition, Malcom listed the following points as needing immediate attention in order to increase the nation’s ability to capture the intelligence and creativity of its top talent, upon which America’s scientific and technological strength depends:
• The importance of career transition points—and their weaknesses—in the education and careers of talented women of color.
• The need for transparent institutional policies—for example, in hiring and promotion.
• The need to raise awareness of unconscious biases.
• The twin needs to 1) obtain focused, additional data (qualitative as well as quantitative), and 2) move ahead to solutions knowing what we know.
• The need for federal agencies to fund more research on gender and/or race targeting select populations.
• Overall, the need for a “toolkit” that can be customized to each institutional and personal context.
Malcom concluded by framing the issues at hand in terms of differentism, citing research that found that some prejudices or reactions are not conscious but are the result of the brain and gut operating independently. She noted that the “universal tendency [is] to form coalitions and favor our own side.”
A key issue, then, is how the academic community moves from differentism to seeing one another as familiar. There are many steps along that path. Malcom described how women of color need to be visible and to participate. They must insist on certain kinds of behaviors—that the institutions that fund research, honor researchers, and maintain disciplines’ status behave in such a way that outstanding women of color are included and are a part of creating and sharing knowledge.
Malcom called on talented women of color to remain present and continue contributing, to bring forth a world of science and technology where differentism dissolves, members of academia see one another as familiar, and familiar and talented are one and the same.