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Personal growth, empowerment and taking a stand for what's right

Sheri Potter is director of community and stakeholder engagement for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS)*, an organization dedicated to supporting women in science. The organization was awarded a 2016 MissionBox Philanthropic Fund "Share With the Nonprofit World" grant.

Here, MissionBox Vice President of Partnerships and Community Engagement Mila Amundson talks with Sheri about her organization's role in helping women in science strengthen their voices.

How does the association support women as allies within the scientific community?

We believe that women are exceptionally confident and bring skills to the workforce that foster scientific ingenuity and advance our understanding of the world. However, women tend to approach their work in a different way than men do — and the scientific community is often biased against those particular traits.

To help women in the sciences strengthen their voices and support each other, we take a systematic approach across all scientific disciplines and sectors of employment. We identify the mechanisms that will facilitate systemic change and then cultivate specific interventions to help organizations recognize, measure and overcome these biases to ensure a more diverse and productive scientific workforce. At the same time, we help women develop the talents and skills required for career success.

What's the history of biases in the scientific community?

Science has a long and deep history as an academic enterprise advanced primarily by men. Some of the biases that began decades or even centuries ago — such as the way people think of the traits required for success in the sciences — continue to persist.

For example, more women than ever before are graduating in the biological sciences and earning advanced degrees. Still, only a small proportion of women end up in the biological sciences workforce because the system isn't conducive to building a career while also raising a family or dealing with other life balance issues. Often, the rigidity of how science is "done" pushes women away from the field.

If we allow historic biases to inadvertently rule out large groups of individuals from the workforce, we strictly limit the likelihood of richer outcomes.

Much of your work as an association is related to changing the societal mindset about how we work and the value of diversity in opinion, cultures and viewpoints. What's the related impact on systemic and social change?

Team diversity has been proven to yield better economic results. So, it's easy to make the case that diversity is critical. The greater challenge is in creating cultural change within a system.

Take an academic institution. Age-old systems tend to be very lab-like, so changing one variable requires changing multiple variables. You can't change one person's mindset. Instead, you must change many people's mindsets.

The challenge really comes in when you try to help people overcome their intrinsic biases. Many people think, "Oh, I'm not biased and I do everything I can for diversity and inclusion," but their next sentence clearly indicates a bias against a particular person or population. Success requires self-reflection and recognition of these blind spots.

Becoming more diverse as a community while overcoming intrinsic biases is a process that requires time and sustained interventions. It can be done, but all parties must be willing to invest in personal growth and supporting the ideals of an inclusive workforce. It's not about one person or a certain policy put into effect by a single institution. It's about a process of learning about ourselves and how we impact the rest of our community.

How does the association empower a community of ambassadors?

Ambassadors are people who are willing to take a stand in their own working environments, finding better or more innovative solutions for outdated or biased policies or practices.

Our philosophy starts with the individual. To create inclusive pockets of greatness, you must focus on the one thing you can change: your own behavior. So the more people we empower as walking examples of what it's like to be inclusive, to be allies and to be informed about these challenges, the more our mission will grow.

To do this, we equip women with the necessary tools and resources to be confident ambassadors. We help members identify their own blind spots and make more informed decisions. Belonging to a community of peers helps members feel more confident when they're the minority in their particular work settings. Our chapters and affiliates provide mentorship networks that promote professional development while, again, helping to create ambassadors who ultimately become agents of systemic change.

The scientific community is huge. Our ambassadors become luminaries within their own scientific professional communities because there's so much need for women who are willing to take on this mission for themselves and their peers. The more women who support what we're doing, the more effective we'll be — and the sooner we'll reach a tipping point.

The association was founded in the early 1970s. What would you describe as the association's most important achievements?

One of our key achievements is our awards program.

There's a longstanding significant bias against women being recognized for their scientific achievements. Consider the movie "Hidden Figures," which tells the story of a team of African-American women who provided NASA with mathematical data that supported the earliest successful space missions — but whose contributions remained largely untold for decades. In fact, women's recognition for scientific accomplishments is one to eight compared to men. To address the issue, we work with 18 different scientific professional societies — which is how scientists organize as research groups — to examine their history of awards recognition. We identify any biases within their systems and then collaborate to work toward a more equal representation of women and their accomplishments.

We've made significant advances in research as well. For example, we've demonstrated that systemic change is possible when people become aware of implicit biases and make a conscious shift in mindset. To ensure success, we back everything we do with data. We don't just talk about what change looks like. We research the questions and innovations, and then we identify, test and iterate the solutions until we get it right.

Another great success is our community of 20,000 women in the science, technology, engineering and math workforce. These women aggregate based on their region or scientific discipline. The mentoring and networks they provide for each other are unparalleled. By combining research findings and community education, we've augmented empowerment exponentially. Women are no longer saying, "I'm the only one who's experienced this, right?"

Some of our original members — who were graduate students 45 years ago — remain members today because the community that empowered them early in their professional development was so fundamental to their success.

How does the association measure its impact?

We measure our impact with standard community metrics. We enter relationships with institutions and corporations armed with baseline data, and we emerge with ending data that we can use to show the impact of specific interventions. From there, we apply the lessons we've learned.

What's the next frontier for the association?

We're entering an innovation and entrepreneurship phase in which we'll help venture capitalists understand biases in funding male start-ups versus female start-ups. Facilitating changes in the venture capital community will help level the playing field for women. We're also talking to women about entrepreneurship: "This phase is for you, too!" Currently, there are fewer women entering the entrepreneurship space than men — yet the space is ripe for scientific innovation and new workforce opportunities.

How can people get involved?

I'd encourage anyone who's interested in joining AWIS to consider membership options. You can also make a donation to support AWIS research and advocacy.

Know another visionary leader or organization working for social good? Let us know! Email

*Sheri Potter is now the Program Director for SciStarter, Inc., a for-profit LLC, helps bring together the millions of citizen scientists in the world; the thousands of potential projects offered by researchers, organizations, and companies; and the resources, products, and services that enable citizens to participate in scientific research alongside scientists.

Prior to her work with SciStarter, Sheri Potter was director of community and stakeholder engagement for the Association for Women in Science. Sheri is passionate about working with the scientific community, creating mentoring relationships with women and girls, developing and implementing programs, and building positive experiential opportunities for people to connect with content and other people in transformative ways.

Sheri has co-authored numerous reports and presented at professional meetings on the need for and approaches to systemic change within the scientific community as well as at the interfaces of science and society. Sheri has successfully convened unconference events, cross-generational conversations, focus groups and market research to inform a systemic understanding of the many dynamics involved in cultural change and the mechanisms that will help the scientific community to achieve them. She has also catalyzed groups and individuals in pursuing their ambitions to create transformative change. Sheri earned a bachelor's degree in biology and an executive certificate in social impact strategy from the University of Pennsylvania.



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