A conversation on supporting women in STEM, and how returning to the office is impacting marginalized identities
Recently, YW Boston collaborated with WEST (Women in the Enterprise of Science and Technology), a Boston-based learning community that provides a powerful forum and supportive environment for early and mid-career women in STEM. Both organizations work at the intersection of race and gender and seek to uplift women and women of color. In a recent Zoom call, YW Boston President and CEO, Beth Chandler, was interviewed by Elena Spencer, Vice President of WEST’s Board of Directors. In the candid conversation, Beth and Elena discussed various topics, including how to support women in STEM, YW Boston’s Parity on Board, and returning to the office.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elena: Thank you for being here, Beth. I’d love to dive into specifics. As part of your advocacy work, one of the big things that you’ve been working on is YW Boston leading a coalition to pass Parity on Board. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that initiative. If it were passed, what would that mean? And why does it matter for our communities in which we live and work?
Beth: I didn’t know this until we started getting into the work, but Massachusetts has over 700 state boards and commissions, and that doesn’t include housing commissions. There are thousands of people who serve on those state boards and commissions. Those boards and commissions are making decisions that impact all of the constituents of the Commonwealth. They’re not just working for certain groups – some of them are making decisions that impact a large group of people. I think it’s important that they are representative of the people that they serve in the Commonwealth. We need to make sure there is racial and gender diversity on public boards and commissions. And it’s important to have different perspectives. I think the data has shown when you have different perspectives and you have diversity, particularly when it comes to race and gender, that you get to better decisions. For state boards and commissions that are making decisions that impact all of us in the Commonwealth, we want them to get to the best decisions that they can. That only will come when they have as diverse perspective of folks represented on those boards and committees as possible. The legislation is not about kicking anybody off of boards and commissions that may currently serve. We want to make sure that there is thought behind the composition of that particular board and committee. The legislation would require organized boards and commissions to look at race, gender, LGBTQ+ status in composition of the boards. It’s stating that there should be people with different perspectives, particularly women, people of color, women of color, folks of LGBTQ+ status on state boards and commissions. Those are the reasons behind why we think it’s so important.
Elena: First of all, thank you for making sure that this important legislation is something that is coming up and is a possibility in our Commonwealth. When I think about other industries, including the science and technology fields, what you said about diverse perspectives resonates with me. We need that same kind of thinking. Whether you’re designing the next new medicine or technological innovation, we are also challenged with this task of fixing the fact that we don’t really have the right parity right now, especially for women and women of color. It’s great that you guys are tackling this on the state level. Like you said, the best decisions get made when you have the most opinions in the room, including the ones from people who can challenge each other and push each other. And we really all win when that happens, right?
Beth: I think it’s important for organizations to push themselves. We get complacent and say, “Oh, well, there just aren’t people with those demographics out there.” That’s not necessarily true, right? We don’t always look outside of our networks. If our networks are comprised of people who look just like us, and if people who are serving boards and commissions primarily identify a particular way, that might be the group that they associate with the most. I encourage all of your members that if they believe in this legislation, to certainly reach out to their legislators, and encourage them to pass it this year.
Whether you’re designing the next new medicine or technological innovation, we are also challenged with this task of fixing the fact that we don’t really have the right parity right now, especially for women and women of color.Elena Spencer, VP of WEST’s Board of Directors
Elena: Thank you for that call to action. Aside from that project, are there any other exciting projects coming up that you’re working on that you’re really proud of, or really excited about at YW Boston?
Beth: I’ll share one other thing that we’re very excited about. We have been doing our diversity, equity and inclusion work for over five years now in its current form. We’ve been partnering with organizations cross sector, collecting a trove of data. We have made a commitment this year, to build our data team so that we are able to analyze the data that we have to share out what we’re learning and to show the things that are working within organizations to move their diversity, equity inclusion work forward. I’m excited to build that team and to be able to start sharing what we’re learning with others.
Elena: We’re all returning to work in some capacity as the pandemic is waning, and different companies are approaching it different ways. As we return to working in the office, there is evidence that employees of color and those with marginalized gender identities have been the least interested in returning. Why do you think that is? What can we do to solve this?
Beth: Great question. From articles that I have read, part of the reason is the microaggressions that people with marginalized identities, particularly people of color and women of color, feel when they’re in the office. For those that aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to actions that are either actions or comments that people make around somebody’s identity that makes them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. There may not be an intentionality around that, but it has impact. It might be people commenting on your hair, your dress, or how you speak. When you’re at home, you don’t have to deal with that. I think there is value in working from home and the flexibility it has given us, but I also think trust is built in person. I don’t have all the answers of how we bridge that gap, but there are ways to fight workplace racism and allow companies to be part of the solution.
Elena: Can you share some ways where we could better support women and women of color in STEM?
Beth: Particularly, with younger people, and younger girls and folks who identify as girls and have other marginalized identities, helping them understand what the possibilities are. It’s hard to think about an industry, if you’re not as familiar with it, to envision being in it. We want to go where those girls are in their communities and get them excited about the possibilities. Another is sponsorship programs are extraordinarily helpful, regardless of industry, right? That’s different than a mentorship program, because for a mentor, it’s more that you’re going to somebody for coaching and support. A sponsor is somebody who is going to push for you whether you’re in the room or not. Sponsorship can be extraordinarily important. Because it’s more than just giving someone advice. It’s also really being an active participant in their development and growth and advocating for them.
Elena: We touched on how the WEST community could get involved in support for Parity on Board. Are there any other ways that you think an organization like WEST can get involved in the work that YW Boston is doing?
Beth: One is as individuals, and as an organization, you can join the coalition. We can let you know times to contact your legislators and language you can use. There also may be some committees people may want to join that align with people’s interests. We do events, so certainly people can come to our events and get involved that way. They can also look at the services we offer and sign up for a workshop, either individually or with their organization. One example of something free that we offer is our newly re-named United Against Racism campaign. United Against Racism is part of YWCA USA’s signature campaign to raise awareness and take action against institutional racism.
YW Boston has been hosting its customized campaign United Against Racism campaign for over 10 years. As of 2020, YW Boston has been organizing United Against Racism (formerly known as Stand Against Racism) as a fully virtual campaign. Anyone can participate for free. We’ve had thousands of participants over the years.