Published July 11, 2016
Kathleen Murphy is all too familiar with the obstacles surrounding women in science, technology, engineering and math.
She was just one of five women in her microelectronic engineering classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she recalls a lack of awareness and advising for the few women in her program.
“There were definitely gender differences, but there wasn’t a concerted effort to say ‘wow, we have these minorities, let’s do something about it,’” says Murphy, service manager for network and classroom services, UB Information Technology.
Today, Murphy — one of only six women in her department — strives to change the landscape for women interested in pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math through the Women in STEM Cooperative (WISC) at UB.
The cooperative began its work three years ago, when Murphy coordinated an event to encourage women on campus to pursue careers in computing and technology. Inspired by the national Sit With Me campaign — which urges men and women to sit in a red chair and share their stories about the important role that women play in creating future technology — she recruited a small committee of women in STEM fields to organize the program and enlisted six female speakers, including Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“When you go to a tech conference or a STEM conference, it’s mostly men; it’s mostly a male audience,” says Murphy. “We really just wanted to spotlight women. We didn’t want to create an event; we wanted to create an experience.”
Registration for UB’s Sit With Me celebration was at capacity within three weeks, and the event in March 2014 was a huge success. Murphy was ready to return to her day job.
“I thought that was it,” she says. “A couple months went by, and a couple women on the committee said ‘that was a great event; what are we doing next?’”
Murphy and her committee then organized a “tweetathon” to continue the discussion of women in STEM, and students from UB, Fredonia State College, Niagara University, RIT and other Western New York colleges and universities tweeted their concerns to the committee.
“It’s challenging to put yourself in the position of a student today and truly understand the challenges they’re facing,” says Glenna Bett, deputy director of the Gender Institute and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
“I know the challenges I faced, but I’m not from around here,” Bett continues. “I went to a different school, in a different country, in a different time, and I could help me if I went back in time. But we’re not looking to do that. We’re looking to put in place support for people at a different place, a different time, a different university.”
The feedback gathered via the tweetathon led the committee to expand its mission beyond technology to support women in all STEM programs and officially form Women in STEM Cooperative. WISC’s aim is to promote the visibility of women in STEM fields, where the number of degrees granted to women has stagnated over the past 10 years.
“It’s a social justice issue,” notes Folks. “It was startling to arrive on campus three-and-a-half years ago and look at the national statistics and realize, no, we’re not bringing women through the STEM disciplines. The percentage has flattened off, and that’s a great concern.”
WISC began planning a summit to embolden young women to earn STEM degrees and pursue careers in those fields.
The inaugural summit took place in April 2015. Rachel Haot, the first chief digital officer in New York, was the keynote speaker. Concurrent panel sessions and a networking event helped students see the path to a career in STEM.
Gilda A. Barabino, dean of The Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York, delivered the keynote at the second annual Women in STEM Summit this past April. Panel sessions, a networking event and an information fair for local organizations followed her talk. A new student poster session showcased research by women STEM students.
In between summits, WISC hosts brown bag lunch lectures, bringing in speakers to empower students to become leaders in these fields.
“Encouraging women on this campus to be thinking about their career planning in structured and methodical ways is good for the campus because it gives people a point in time to stop and think ‘where am I going and what should I be doing to get there,’ and that’s what we want as a campus,” Folks says.
The committee is looking into applying for grants to provide funding for systemic change. Until then, the intergenerational and interdisciplinary committee continues to grow as more women across campus join WISC’s campaign to advance women in STEM.
“We don’t have that many opportunities to work across the whole campus collectively like that,” Folks says. “It’s lovely just engaging with people who are from disciplines way, way across the other side of the campus and think about what their issues are and what happens in their culture.”
Heterogeneity is the committee’s strength, and the women behind WISC agree that different experiences and opinions — but shared goals — create an inclusive, yet unparalleled movement in the UB and local communities.
“For the first time on campus, we are creating a space for women to come together and talk to each other and share experiences,” Murphy says. “You could be in health professions, you could be in engineering, but we’re like ‘come and talk to us.’”