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How Do We Create Systemic Change?

A worldwide coronavirus pandemic and simultaneous global uprising against systemic racism, injustices, and murders of African Americans at the hands of police are forcing sober self-reflection about white privilege like no other time in recent history. As heightened awareness and urgency push these issues to the forefront, prominent African American women in STEM higher education say it’s time to change policies from the top down — in both the university and in corporations’ executive suites.
How Do We Create Systemic Change?

Nicki Washington, Ph.D., is a computer science professor of the practice at Duke University, studying whether and how cultural competence can be measured. Aiming to complete her analysis by October, she’s conducting surveys of college computing department students using six stages of cultural competence that she has applied to her field.

As described by the National Center for Cultural Competence, cultural competence is “a developmental process that evolves over an extended period. Both individuals and organizations are at various levels of awareness, knowledge, and skills along the cultural competence continuum.” Key to this process are “the capacity to value diversity; conduct self-assessment; manage the dynamics of difference; acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge; and adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of communities they serve.” (See sidebar, “A Framework to Understand Cultural Competence.”)

“The goal [of assessing cultural competency] is for any department or industry to take the collective results and look at, ‘Are we doing a good job in terms of equity and inclusion to create and sustain diversity?’” Dr. Washington said. “If not, do we need to develop a new strategy?”

Dr. Washington and other African American women leaders interviewed for this article say that change, in the form of greater equity and representation, will not happen unless administrators — college and university presidents, deans, department chairs, and tenured professors — are rewarded or penalized where it matters: in tenure awards, career promotions, and financial compensation.

Further, in separate interviews, these women noted that higher education requires systemic change before the corporate world can get the diversity, equity, and inclusivity overhaul it needs. “Everyone in industry spent four years in a computing department,” Dr. Washington said. “They were never told there’s bias in their computing environments, first and foremost. It’s the precursor to biased technology — the lack of diversity, which is due to bias and lack of inclusion.”

“Perhaps if a college or a department fails to demonstrate its ability to retain both faculty and students from systemically marginalized groups, its funding or allocation of support goes down,” Dr. Washington said. “Now you’re messing with my money.” To be taken seriously, “You’ve got to hit people in their pocketbooks,” she added. 

The cultural competence ideal should also be incorporated into reaccreditation requirements for college and university STEM departments, these influencers say.

How Do We Create Systemic Change?

Accreditation takes a nonprescriptive approach

ABET (formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accredits more than 4,000 programs in 32 countries, including 3,271 programs at nearly 640 U.S. institutions. These range from private, state, teaching, and community colleges to military and faith-based schools in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels.   

As such, ABET has adopted a nonprescriptive policy that allows educational leaders to implement diversity and inclusion in a way that meets each school’s mission and constituent needs, said the organization’s executive director and CEO, Michael K.J. Milligan, Ph.D., P.E., CAE. While there are no diversity criteria for faculty demographics, ABET expects faculty to have the institution’s support “to conduct their programs appropriately, with a range of expertise and experience to provide an inclusive learning environment,” Dr. Milligan said.

How Do We Create Systemic Change?

During visits to academic institutions, ABET evaluators talk to faculty members and students, passing along any concerns they may have. This is done in a confidential manner, with faculty and students remaining anonymous.

The Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory Council (IDEA) is a recent effort to update and develop methods and metrics to continuously improve inclusivity, diversity, and equity within ABET, its activities, its volunteer base comprising 36 member societies, and its accredited programs. Appointed in March 2020, comments are welcome via email at

“We began our work by soliciting input from ABET stakeholders about definitions of diversity, inclusion, and equity — to give us a common language to use as we address these topics, both within ABET and as we go outside to our constituents,” said IDEA Council Chair Mary Leigh Wolfe, Ph.D., immediate past ABET president and professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Addressing another aspect of ABET’s mission, as of fall 2019 programs undergoing review by the organization’s engineering accreditation commission must address an increased set of outcomes related to diversity and inclusion. 

Taking on the challenges of institutional change

Among the programs whose diversity, equity, and inclusion missions include fostering organizational change is STEMM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine] Equity Achievement (SEA) Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It’s the American adaptation of the U.K.’s Equality Charters process, which underlies the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) and the Race Equality Charter to help research and higher-education institutions address racial and gender inequality.

How Do We Create Systemic Change?

SEA Change’s mission is to “support institutional transformation in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially in colleges and universities.”

The organization focuses on helping colleges and universities get a handle on policies and processes that the school as a whole is implementing. In some cases, one department has no idea what the others are doing, or even that a separate department has won a major grant to address inequity. “Often, there is no central data repository,” said Beth Ruedi, Ph.D., SEA Change’s director of operations. 

SEA Change presented its first Institutional Bronze Awards in February 2019 to Boston University; the University of California, Davis; and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Each university conducted a self-assessment based in SEA Change principles; identified barriers preventing inclusion and equity in STEMM across the institution; developed an action plan to address the barriers identified; and committed to regular review and assessment by an independent panel of experts of the action plan and progress made.

With a similar focus on institutional transformation, the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program — Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions — is aimed at increasing women’s representation and advancement in academic science and engineering careers. 

ADVANCE has no specific component for women of color (meaning women who are not white). “Proposals that are focused on women of color are welcome and, indeed, we have funded many individual projects focused on women of color in STEM faculty since the program started in 2001,” said Rob Margetta, spokesman for the National Science Foundation’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. 

“The ADVANCE program incentivizes partnerships between ADVANCE projects and AGEP projects in the current solicitation, which is another way the program is supporting a focus on racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion for STEM faculty,” Margetta said.

Other diversity-related programs include:

• Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) ( focuses on underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students in STEM at the graduate, postdoc, and faculty levels.

• Academic and Research Leadership Network ( organized to prepare minority engineers and scientists in academia, industry, and government laboratories whose careers involve a strong focus on research. The research networking thread provides an opportunity for seasoned researchers (university, corporate, government) to nurture connections with their peers, and be excited and inspired by the latest discoveries and technical advances across many disciplines of engineering and science.

• Aspire, the National Alliance for Inclusive and Diverse STEM Faculty (, particularly its Institutional Change (IChange) track. IChange aims to foster institutions where STEM faculty from underrepresented groups are “widely recruited, hired, and retained, and all STEM faculty employ inclusive teaching, advising, and research mentoring practices.”

How Do We Create Systemic Change?
Ebony O. McGee, Ph.D., associate professor of diversity and STEM education, Vanderbilt University, wrote the forthcoming book Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation.

How Do We Create Systemic Change?

These high-minded initiatives face a daunting task: to steer deftly through judicial and legislative rulings that allow inclusive affirmative action and help colleges and universities stave off a successful legal challenge alleging reverse discrimination.

“Institutions must ask the right questions, working with their general counsels and examine whether [their intended policies] are legally sustainable,” said Dr. Ruedi of SEA Change.

Changes in policies and procedures take time, said SEA Change Director Shirley Malcom, Ph.D., and a senior advisor for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), under whose aegis SEA Change operates.

“We go back decades dealing with intersectionality,” said Dr. Malcom, who was the lead author of the landmark 1976 report “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science,” which documented that minority women were the victims of both racism and sexism.

“We must move into institutional strategies and accountability,” Dr. Malcom said. “We are in a period of time where hope is alive. The kind of disruption that has come, first, because of COVID-19 and then the awakening around the issue of the abuse that Black Americans experience at the hands of the police, the criminal justice system, and everything else, to understand its systemic nature. Only then do you have an opening to channel truth … and to talk about the hard issues that Black people experience every day.”

Unlocking data and personal stories

Gilda Barabino, Ph.D., the new president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, and a prior recipient of an ADVANCE Leadership Award to employ a cross-disciplinary approach to increase minority women faculty’s advancement in engineering, said she has long asked why women and men of color in STEM-centric higher education can’t have their own initiative to ensure fair, equitable, and inclusive treatment.

“While the ADVANCE program has had success in focusing on institutional transformation to improve the experiences of women,” she said, “it has not specifically addressed the experiences — and setbacks — faced by women of color based on race and gender, or that of men of color.”

Dr. Barabino has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to quantitatively analyze the career trajectories of African American women in engineering and computing.

She and her colleagues are creating predictive models of African American women’s experiences in institutions using simulations of activities, interactions, and transitions, with an eye toward unlocking data on inequities.


How Do We Create Systemic Change?

“What are the key factors that underlie [these women’s career] trajectories, and how do we use these insights to inform strategies and interventions to eliminate the inequities, advance careers, and contribute to scholarship around studies of career paths?” Dr. Barabino asked.

The objective is to combine the data with qualitative narratives, so that might mean asking African American engineers and STEM academics and professionals such questions as:

• How long did it take to get your lab set up?

• How long are people staying at a certain level before they get a promotion?

• How many scientific and peer-reviewed papers are you publishing compared with peers?

• What if you were involved in collaborations when you started your work? 

Once quantitative measures show results, the experts say it’s time to take meaningful action.

“It’s going to have to be tied to compensation or incentives, and it has to come from the top,” said Ebony O. McGee, Ph.D., associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and author of the forthcoming book Black, Brown, Bruised: How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation, by Harvard Education Press.

“We know that diversity results in more innovation and creativity. No one cares,” said Dr. McGee, who said her work experience included being treated as a token and feeling undervalued, and her education at a historically black college or university (HBCU) led her workplace managers to question her expertise. 

“But if I tell you, you’re not going to get as large of a raise unless you hire more Black faculty, or take this series of professional developments, it will have an impact,” she said. “We need [accountability from] white and Asian males. They are the gatekeepers at a vast majority of colleges and companies. It can’t just be left to their good graces to give up and share power.”

“We need to ask white folks, ‘What are you willing to do to bring an end to these [racist and degrading] practices?’” she said.

Dr. McGee said there’s a long history to overcome. “We have to understand the history of STEM education — build more bombs, not uplift communities. And it’s from a white male, able-bodied, middle-class perspective,” she said. “Even though our world and ideologies have changed significantly, racism and other isms are embedded in the STEM air we breathe and in the curriculum.”

Would a broad-based application of cultural competence help the STEM fields overcome this history? Toward that end, Dr. Washington said she would “love to be a part of creating nationwide certification” in higher education, especially since computer science faculty tend to steer away from qualitative research in favor of the quantitative, and higher-education faculty in general tend to operate in this “weird bubble” with a carte blanche mindset.

“We are now seeing a reckoning with those kinds of ideas,” she said. “It’s no longer going to work that way, if it’s going to work at all. 

“It’s going to take the demands of the administration, provost, the dean, and the department chair for people to understand and buy in,” Dr. Washington said. “If those three people mandate it, a lot of people will buy in.”

STEM students also need to benefit from not only their teachers’ cultural competence, but the innate understanding that they don’t need to work themselves to death — “John Henryism”  to prove to others that they’re good enough.

“We tell them as undergrads that we expect you to work all night, have no sleep, all these things to prove your worthiness in STEM,” said Dr. McGee.

She said she has been encouraged nonetheless by her involvement in the Academic and Research Leadership (ARL) Network. “In the workplace, there’s a whole other set of expectations to prove your STEM worthiness over and over again. It should be about your well-being and being able to walk into a company to be deemed competent and not have to constantly prove your right to be viewed as talented.”

That kind of open, equitable, and diverse workplace will lend itself to solutions. “Diverse students want to do STEM to better their communities, including eliminating environmental racism,” Dr. McGee said. “They feel a disconnect in how it’s marketed as individualistic and competitive, [such as] ‘We want to be the superpower.’

“That doesn’t resonate for those of color who want a more humane STEM career,” she said. “If you want to solve environmental racism, such as the number of power plants and toxic wastes in underrepresented communities, you’re automatically going to have a culturally relevant perspective.”

Dr. Barabino said she wants to see more campuswide discussions such as the diversity symposium she created while serving as the inaugural vice provost for academic diversity at Georgia Tech.

“We put the community to work engaging in conversation about what can you do [to create a more equitable and inclusive environment]? What are the action steps?” she said. “There is a day devoted to it. Experts help guide the conversation in the morning, and action-oriented, community-led discussions occur in the afternoon.” This year marks the 12th annual symposium.

“You need more faculty and administrators of color who can serve as role models, advocates, leaders, and mentors — and by their very presence, serve as change agents,” Dr. Barabino said. “That helps move institutions.”

“We don’t give people credit for helping us diversify and improve the climate and culture of our institutions,” Dr. Barabino said. “We don’t note that these efforts are over and above responsibilities associated with their positions. If you’re a person of color, there’s no recognition of the extra burden, sometimes referred to as a tax, that is placed on people of color to carry the load, and the toll it takes.”

Dr. McGee said making change involves incentives. “Examining policies and practices isn’t that hard,” she said. “Holding people accountable isn’t that hard. You’ll be evaluated. Look at merit increases. We’ll include equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of how we evaluate, and people will take it more seriously.”

The next step is how to encourage people to speak out. “When people see injustices, too often they remain silent,” she added. “We have to be willing to admit, yes, we have these barriers. What will we do about them? We must allow people the space to talk about it in a secure environment.”

Dr. McGee said she finds hope in the groundswell of three developments:

First, “So many people are saying, ‘We can’t continue to let this go on.’”

  Secondly, “Today’s protestors are from all walks of life. That has got to be promising.”

 And lastly, “It can’t let up. This is the long haul. You don’t get a break.”