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From the Margins to the Center: In-Depth with Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD, AWIS President Talks About Diversity and Inclusion
Interview with Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister
The content has been edited for clarity and abridged.
Dr. Cissy S. Young: We would love to hear about your own journey in science. In particular, what has been your experience regarding diversity and inclusion in terms of access and opportunities?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: As an African-American woman in a STEM profession, for many years I have found myself to be one of very few women in the room. I am also usually the only person of color in the room, so issues of diversity and inclusion are of personal interest to me. I have been in the advisory space, working with very large companies on strategy. I can’t tell you how many times I would come to an assignment for the first time, walk in to a boardroom full of men, introduce myself, and then hear someone ask, “Is the engagement manager coming?” For me, it was about having to establish my ability to give good advice and my credibility in organizations that clearly didn’t have a lot of other women or people of color in senior roles. But I was lucky. I worked for a firm that was very “woke,” where there were women in leadership positions. I really experienced more challenges outside of my firm than I did inside. That was a fortunate position for me to be in because it built my confidence. I could see role models within the firm.
Let me also say that diversity and inclusion is as much about sound business strategy for companies as it is about opportunities for individuals. According to the Brookings Institution, talent is the number one success factor in the innovation economy. Successful organizations draw on the entire talent pool, including women and people of color, so that they can compete. We need to train more women in STEM and encourage more kids of color to explore STEM.
Dr. Cissy S. Young: So, at its core, do you see the challenges regarding diversity and inclusion as a “pipeline” issue?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: Training is just one half of the issue. The other half, where we’re making the least progress, is holding on to talent. Women leave STEM professions at twice the rate of men. To solve that issue we need to think more about inclusion. Pay inequity, unpleasant working conditions, and a lack of advancement opportunity are among the factors that explain why women don’t stay. How do we fold in different styles of leadership and problem solving? Also, we are still stuck in wanting diverse faces around the table but who bring the same perspectives. We have to focus on an inclusion of perspectives as well.
Dr. Dana M. Krueger: Can you share a little about what the Association for Women in Science is doing to advance this agenda of diversity and inclusion?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: We are at a point of strategic refresh at AWIS. Our mission has always been to advocate for women in science, but we are also broadening that to STEM careers in general. We want to make sure that women in fields such as math, technology, engineering, and financial mathematics in both academia and industry have opportunities for success as well. We are also conducting data analysis, bringing evidence to bear on the case for diversity and inclusion.
We have a policy focus as well, and we’re going to continue to fight for systemic change, including the structure around how the reporting of sexual harassment is handled. For example, we think that some of the policy proposals coming out of the current Department of Education in this regard are going backwards. We’ve been very aggressive in putting our perspective out there and our advocacy for that policy change not to be implemented. Much of our approach to finding solutions has to do with our partnerships.
Dr. Dana M. Krueger: What kind of organizations are you partnering with on these initiatives to develop implementable solutions?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: We’re realizing we can be an umbrella for other industry associations, professional associations, or affinity groups that are thinking about diversity and inclusion but don’t have it front and center in their missions. Through a variety of programs, we make ourselves available to offer leadership training, mentoring and coaching often through podcasts or webinars. We are also working to be even more engaged with our chapters across the country. We’re hoping that even organizations like Russell Reynolds Associates would think of us as a resource, seeing our membership database as a pool of great talent.
Dr. Cissy S. Young: What are the steps that companies need to take if they are serious about diversity and inclusion?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: It requires intentionality on the part of governance. It requires that the board define and monitor metrics. I think most simply it’s making the effort. What are the criteria for advancement? Actively mentoring and putting forth the women in their organizations and developing leadership programs for them. It’s really a matter of taking a look at policies and practices, including pay policies. At AWIS we really try to get some of the best practices out there for others to look to.
Dr. Dana M. Krueger: If those are steps that organizations can take, what specifically can individuals do?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: For women and people of color in STEM it’s about being willing to be brave and make the “ask.” Seek mentors and coaches and sponsors. It’s also about recognizing the importance of a network, because that is a support system as well. I think it’s about learning to present your own business case about the value you bring. It’s also on individuals to look around and see if maybe they can create an affinity group or a professional group within the organization. It comes down to realizing that you can lead and advocate in many different ways and feeling comfortable enough to step forward.
Dr. Cissy S. Young: Sometimes the notion of diversity gets oversimplified or presented in this monolithic way. How do you define it?
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: Yes, you’ve raised a key point. We’ve tended to get a little siloed. I think if you ask most people, “What is diversity?” they would first go to gender and say, “Well, we’re addressing the gender issue. Look at how many women are in leadership positions.” Intersectionality recognizes a convergence of many factors. Beyond gender there’s the issues and experiences of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, tribe, caste, gender identity, etc. – with one individual experiencing the intersections of multiple identities and the bias that often goes with it.
AWIS is housing a grant that was awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the ARC Network. It is a brain trust of people all around the country who are doing [STEM equity] work through the lens of intersectionality. It really calls on us to think in the broadest possible way about all the perspectives, identities, and experiences that may be coming together – so, it becomes a Rubik’s Cube approach. You may be a transgender person who is also Jewish and a woman of color. We need to think about the totality of a person. AWIS is doing a lot of data analysis right now through this framework and convening groups to craft solutions and coming up with best practices.
Drs. Dana M. Krueger and Cissy S. Young: Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to share your experiences and offer your perspective.
Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister: It’s not a simple issue, and I really appreciate the leadership that Russell Reynolds Associates is bringing to it.
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