How to Engineer Bridges for Women

Joanne Cleaver

Here is an article written by Joanne Cleaver for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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In most doctoral programs in engineering and the physical sciences, you can count the number of women on one hand. With one finger, even.

While the National Science Foundation and its cohorts labor mightily on big-picture solutions, one breakout project has just delivered a set of tools useful for all women in male-dominated fields.

CareerWise aims to equip women with context and practical strategies for dealing with everyday annoyances, says Bianca Bernstein, the Principal Investigator for the Careerwise Research Program. (She’s also a psychologist, for for purposes of this project, gets a CSI-like title.)

It will take a long, long, long time for programs to change the embedded cultures that not only channel more men into these categories but perpetuate the cultures that many women find inhospitable.  Officially, everybody wants more women in these programs. But then they run into situations like that faced by one working mom: she walked into an evening classroom only to be asked by the professor, in front of the group, if she shouldn’t be home feeding dinner to her kids.

“My interest as a psychologist is that, while the big picture changes, things still happen to individual women that create obstacles on a moment by moment basis,” Bernstein told me in an interview yesterday. “We wanted to see if we could develop something that would provide a resource to women so they can learn how to react better in the moment and also to prepare them for the future, given that the assumption that whatever is unpleasant will likely follow them into the future. ”

Here’s what she figured out that is useful for most workplaces:  the stories of women’s experiences help women currently facing career challenges and their bosses.

Women’s stories, told through first-person videos, are a central component of CareerWise. The intention is that women entering the sciences, or wondering if it is worthwhile to hang in there in an uncomfortable, tiresome environment, will glean useful strategies and also absorb the message that they are not alone – present circumstances notwithstanding.

But Bernstein has found that professors, program leaders and department heads find these videos an eye-opener, too.  They often don’t know what they don’t know. When they hear the first-hand stories of women in programs like theirs, and recognize the culture and characteristics of their own departments in those stories, they suddenly get it.

This is a new twist on the very tired concept of diversity training, which is so hackneyed it has become a self-parody. Why not let women speak for themselves? Their experiences are powerful in the first person.  Narrative documentary is more powerful than a lecture. Personal testimony is always more compelling than yet another set of rules.

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Since 1981, Joanne Cleaver has been reporting on all aspects of business for national and regional newspapers, magazines and websites. Numerous magazine and industry “best employers for women” lists use the equity index she developed to rank companies according to the presence (or not) of women in their executive ranks. She also leads the research firm Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., where her team measures and supports the advancement of women in accounting, cable, finance and other industries. Yes, she has an opinion: that when women fully engage in all business operations, companies will make more money in more ways.

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