Helping Women Overcome Discrimination in STEM
University of Arizona Provost Liesl Folks is principal investigator on a collaborative project with the University at Buffalo and Cal Poly that aims to give women in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines strategic tools to identify, address and overcome gender bias and discrimination.

University Communications
Nov. 8, 2021

Educators in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines now have a set of new resources to help them support female STEM students in navigating and overcoming bias and discrimination in their careers. The resources are the result of a project spearheaded by University of Arizona Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Liesl Folks.

The NAVIGATE Project provides a free, comprehensive set of training materials that higher education institutions can use to help female graduate students in STEM fields prepare for and respond to issues such as gender-based bias, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, ideally without derailing their careers. The trainings use case studies, which are widely used in business and law education but have not been broadly used to address gender bias in STEM disciplines, and allow students to engage with new concepts and develop strategic problem-solving skills, Folks said.


Liesl Folks
Liesl Folks

In 2019, women made up about half of the U.S. workforce but only 37% of the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The NAVIGATE Project, funded by the National Science Foundation, was created to increase the number of female STEM graduates who persist in their chosen disciplines and achieve leadership roles.

Many women report that they are dissuaded from pursuing their ambitious career goals in STEM because they encounter gender-related bias and discrimination. Too often, if they attempt to address those issues within their organizations, it can derail their careers, according to the NAVIGATE Project researchers.

Folks, the project's principal investigator, worked with her collaborators at the University at Buffalo and Cal Poly to develop a collection of peer-reviewed case studies, based on real-life experiences of women at STEM workplaces, that can be used by other institutions to develop training programs. She said her own experiences as a woman in the engineering field prompted her to initiate the project.

Folks stresses that female employees should not bear the responsibility of eliminating gender bias and discrimination in the workplace, but it's important that they recognize such situations when they occur, and can frame strategic approaches to move past the resulting career obstacles.

Folks began work on the NAVIGATE Project during her time as dean of the University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a position she held from 2013 to 2019.

Folks came to UArizona in 2019 and is a professor of electrical and computer engineering in addition to her role as provost. She also is still a volunteer faculty member for the University at Buffalo.

For National STEM Day on Nov. 8, Folks provided three tips for women in STEM fields.

1. Understand that eliminating bias, discrimination and harassment is not your responsibility, but the responsibility of the institution or employer.

Institutions and employers can also support women in their career ambitions by training them in how to recognize gender-related inequities, bias and discrimination, and how to move past those issues without sacrificing ambitions, Folks said.

"It's your job to look after your career, but it's not your job to solve the institutional challenge around an individual behaving badly," she added.

2. When you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, analyze what is happening, then take a strategic approach to deciding what to do next.

This starts by reflecting on what's happening to understand why it's uncomfortable, and whether it is a gender-related issue, Folks said.

Then, turn to a process that helps you strategize what to do next. For example, if you see a clear set of choices, you might use a SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – analysis, Folks said. Where there are many possible paths to explore, using a classic "decision tree" tool has been very helpful for students who have gone through the program.

"Constructing decision trees really helped students to understand that no matter what you're facing, there are often multiple paths forward that still will take you in the direction of advancing your career," Folks said.

3. Actively build a professional network of allies and mentors to whom you can turn for guidance before uncomfortable situations arise.

"The time to build those networks is not after you're facing a dilemma in your career," Folks said.

Having peers, mentors and allies who can help analyze problems and strategize about solutions can help women in STEM facing gender-related challenges to persist in their chosen fields rather than turning to other career options, Folks said.

The NAVIGATE Project, Folks said, was motivated by encounters with students who were about to leave the engineering field due to problems with gender-related harassment and bias that they struggled to move past.

Folks said she hopes to offer the NAVIGATE Project training to female STEM graduate students at UArizona.


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Kyle Mittan

News Writer, University Communications