Volume 29, Number 4 October 2000


How Change Happens: Thoughts on the Report of the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development.

Priscilla Auchincloss


The Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET) has recently released its final report and recommendations (see http://www. nsf. gov/od/cawmset). Established by Congress in October 1998, the charge of the Commission was to "research and recommend ways to improve the recruitment, retention, and representation of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in science, engineering, and technology (SET) education and employment. "

The Commission convened six times over a period of a year, hearing expert testimony, reviewing existing reports, and commissioning new studies, on the barriers facing underrepresented groups as well as practices and strategies used to overcome these barriers. The 100-page report (with an accompanying 10-page brochure) organizes this comprehensive array of information to present and address issues at each stage along the professional pipeline -- " Precollege Education," " Access to Higher Education," and " Professional Life" -- as well as the overarching issues of " Public Image" and " National Accountability." It makes six major recommendations: (1) adoption by states of comprehensive high-quality standards in K-12 science and math education, including curricula, teacher qualifications, technological support, and physical infrastructure; (2) aggressive intervention efforts focused especially at junctures where high school and college students leave the SET pipeline; (3) expanded federal and state financial investment in support of underrepresented students and institutions serving significant minority populations; (4) increased accountability by public and private SET employers for the career development and advancement of their underrepresented employees; (5) coordination of efforts to transform the image of SET professionals; and (6) establishment of a public-private body to develop, coordinate, and oversee all these efforts.

At its July 2000 press briefing, the Commission emphasized the need to move beyond "announcing the need for change" to "making sure that change happens. " Its concluding recommendation and public statements made by Commission representatives show their sensitivity to the brief attention most federal reports receive in the press of Washington politics. The problem of the lack of diversity in science is not new, having been well documented since the early 1970’s (1). Strenuous arguments for improving the science education and technical training of women and minorities, in the national interest, have been made as recently as the late 1980’s. Similar arguments date back to the late 1800’s in support of the establishment of all-women’s colleges (2).

What is the prospect that CAWMSET will make a difference? There are grounds for optimism. CAWMSET’s recommendations come at a time when diversity has the possibility of new and positive cultural associations. The global scope and wealth of corporations, closely connected to the boom in information technology, means that if industry says "diversity is good for business", government and academia take note. Furthermore, we now have examples, such as the M.I.T. report released in March 1999 (3), of men leaders using their influence to advance the careers of women in academia and industry. This is also a time in which it is becoming possible to talk about race as a cultural reality -- like The New York Times’ lengthy series ending in July 2000, "How Race is Lived in America" -- even as race is disappearing as a meaningful scientific category.

True to its inaugurating mandate, the CAWMSET report pulls together the current themes regarding underrepresentation in science and engineering, identifying causal factors and supplying supporting data and analyses. The report provides examples of programs that are proving effective in remediating inequity and increasing diversity. This is an intelligent report, with input by a wide range of individuals and groups who have studied the issues, tracked the affected populations, and initiated change efforts. The report shows how much we already know about the facts, issues, causes, and even solutions regarding the lack of diversity in science and engineering, and the report is honest where gaps exist in our knowledge (for instance, regarding persons with disabilities). It makes a well-researched and vigorous petition to leaders at the highest levels to address the problem once and for all.

The report’s central argument is that U. S. is facing a huge skilled-labor shortage in science and technology and that the nation can best meet this need by developing the talent latent in its underrepresented populations. Indeed, the argument runs, the nation must do so; its technological and economic preeminence is at stake. The report states, "The lack of diversity in SET education and careers is an old dilemma, but economic necessity and workforce deficiencies bring a new urgency to the nation’s strategic need to achieve parity in its SET workforce." In building this argument, the report early on presents survey findings showing how business executives think diversity is good for business -- better use of talent, increased marketplace understanding, enhanced breadth of understanding in leadership positions, enhanced creativity, and increased quality of team problem-solving. The mobilizing potential of global economic competition and technology’s role in the market place clearly have not been lost on the Commission.

The report thus derives a new-sounding formula, merging moral imperatives with corporate priorities, to create "a national imperative" requiring the U. S. to undertake strategic moves, including the alteration of workforce demographics, to maintain global preeminence.

It is difficult to argue with this. Diversity is good for business, for higher education, and for that matter, for science. As a nation, we are ignoring, losing, and wasting talent among women, minorities, and the disabled, at immeasurable moral and social cost. And who can argue against prosperity, even if not everybody in America shares it? Certainly it makes sense, from both moral and long-term business perspectives, to draw our scientific and technological workforce from the domestic population, instead from abroad. If one wants a representative workforce -- and if one can no longer speak safely in terms of affirmative action -- why not align one’s cause with those of the most powerful players and go for a win-win strategy? Underrepresented groups get equity, businesses get technical workers and analysts, and the U. S. stays economically in the lead. And everyone gets the dividend of diversity. CAWMSET is clear that none of this is simple or easy. Reaching the goal of diversity as equitable representation requires commitment and accountability, and the report spells out what commitment and accountability look like, for government, industry, and academia.

But will the report make a difference? There are at least two ways to look at the question. First, the report (even without any follow-up) may serve as a blueprint for those already working on increasing the access of underrepresented groups to science and technology. As a common reference document, the report could lend coherence to widespread and highly various efforts and provide a rationale for focusing attention in areas of particular need. Second, the workforce argument — that talent in under-tapped populations is the answer to a national workforce shortage and global economic competition -- may prove convincing to some leaders, or useful to change agents who are trying to convince leaders. The question of whether the report will make a difference, however, is really the question of whether those leaders, who are predominantly male, white, and able-bodied, will assume ownership of the problem of inequity in their respective communities and direct the necessary human and financial resources toward solving it. And this leads to the question of how change actually happens.

One difficulty with the workforce argument is that the links in its logic depend on human reactions and responses, which do not always go the way those making the argument expect or want. Diversity is good for the science community, if all members of the community are equally enfranchised participants (4). That is, a diverse workforce, simply by nature of its diversity, cannot change entrenched cultural patterns of discrimination. Not everybody shares in America’s prosperity, some of which has come by not putting resources, for example, into repairing schools or developing teachers’ capacities in science. Moreover, even those who are relatively prosperous may still worry about maintaining their jobs and positions, and such anxiety has negative consequences for the career advancement of new groups coming through the SET pipeline. From any angle, the actual cultivation of qualified practitioners among underrepresented groups in science will be long, complex, and expensive. Faced with the choice between the growing domestic talent and importing foreign talent, the U. S. may decide that foreign-born diversity is just as good for business as the domestic kind, and cheaper, too.

Workforce shortages, as the physics community has learned, come and go and change. Diversity may be strategic in securing the nation’s competitive edge, but we need to keep the focus on equitable access to science and technology as the source of that diversity. The Commission’s report stands quite firmly, without the workforce argument, in documenting the present degree of inequity in education and professional life, as well as outlining the next steps to full equity. How one talks about diversity, in terms of economics or of equity, may bear on the potential of the argument to make a difference.

In the story of the March 1999 report acknowledging discrimination against women faculty in science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have a glimpse of how change happens. A group of women shared and quantified their experience of professional inequity, and men in a position to correct the situation decided to do so. While it is crucial to understand what this group of women experienced, how they came together, and how they made their case, it is also crucial to understand the role played by the particular men involved. What enabled them to take action, and what motivated them to do so? The enabling factors appear to include high levels of personal and professional security. Still, others with similar status might not take the same action. It undoubtedly takes confidence, and courage, to get out in front of one’s peers and take a visible, active moral or political stand. In addition, a high level of institutional security, in terms both of endowment and reputation, may provide essential back-up support. Regarding motivating factors as opposed to enabling ones, one cannot know for sure. One may be permitted to assume, however, that the men at MIT did not undertake corrective measures because they felt that women were the answer to the technology workforce problem. One would like to believe they acted to correct an unfair situation, of which they had previously been unaware (3, 5).

To get to diversity, we need to be able to talk honestly about how inequity is lived in America, to grasp the nature of racism and sexism at this point in time. Race and gender are fundamentally cultural categories used to define and maintain systems of unequally distributed social privilege, along lines of skin color or ethnicity and sex. Disability, socio-economic class, and sexual orientation play into other such systems. For change to happen, persons who benefit from their position in these systems need to become aware of the systems and mobilized to oppose or revise them. We need examples of persons and groups who have used their privilege and their credentials to correct inequity within their sphere of influence. We need to understand what personal or institutional conditions enabled them to act and if possible, what experience, logic, anxieties, or incentives ultimately motivated them.

Whether CAWMSET will lead to greater diversity in science and engineering depends, in the end, on who responds to it, and how. The CAWMSET report may energize people already working for change, and it may inspire new champions. It may give leaders greater confidence and courage to make decisions that support equity. To this reader, the workforce argument is momentarily compelling, but finally distracting. Workforce shortages, however rooted in social inequity, may disappear or be solved by other means. Moral issues don’t go away. The principle of equal opportunity is at the center of what the U. S. stands for, yet remains unrealized in our time. The lack of diversity in science and technology stems from this central moral dilemma. How do we as a nation achieve social justice in the context of ideals like economic free markets and scientific meritocracy? We may do better if we shift from thinking of equal opportunity as a state to be attained at some point in our nation’s future, to understanding equality as an ever-unfolding principle that will continue to challenge human creativity, including scientific and technological ingenuity, in every era. The question is, to whom does the challenge fall?

Priscilla Auchincloss

Research Associate in Physics and Sr. Lecturer

University of Rochester




1. See also the concise AIP report, Women in Physics, 2000, recently released and available at http://www.aip.org/statistics.

2. See David Noble, A World Without Women (Oxford, 1992). Noble's final chapter deals with women's entry into science through the establishment of colleges for women. He draws heavily on Margaret Rossiter's authoritative work, Women Scientists in America, Vol. 1: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. (Johns Hopkins, 1982).

3. "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT: How a Committee on Women Faculty came to be established by the Dean of the School of Science, what the Committee and the Dean learned and accomplished, and recommendations for the future," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999. The report can be found at http://www.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html.

4. Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton, 1990). See Chapter 4, where Longino includes "equality of intellectual authority" among key conditions for effective criticism in science.

5. The cause of women in science has had few well-known male champions (Leibniz was one), but many supportive fathers, husbands, brothers, and colleagues. See Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? (Harvard, 1989). In Chapter 5, she describes Leibniz's role regarding the petition by Maria Winkelmann to become academy astronomer in Berlin, in 1710.