To celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 and understand the theme #BreakTheBias, the current 2021-22 cohort of Aurora, were treated to an inspiring talk by Dr Shirley Malcom from the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Aurora is Advance HE’s programme designed to empower women to seek leadership roles in higher education and achieve leadership success. Dr Malcom is senior advisor and director of SEA Change at the AAAS and in her more than 40-year tenure at the Association has worked to improve the quality of and increase access to education and careers in STEM.
Shirley began by explaining her background, sharing what it was like for women of colour growing up in the United States because she said, “It is absolutely crucial to talk about where we’ve been in order to understand where we need to go.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in America, Shirley said there were some things about her life that were pretty much set because she was “a Black kid…with limited opportunities, limited expectations.”
A curious kid, she wanted to know how everything works and got into trouble taking things apart. “It was the kind of curiosity that tends to define those of us who go into the sciences, and engineering tends to give us the space where we can actually operate.
“But the world that I lived in was very different. It was not a world of opportunities, either for Black people, or for women.”
Schools were segregated. She was with kids who looked like her and only ever taught by Black teachers. “So it was a limited kind of a vision of the world that I actually had when efforts were made to stand up and ask for civil rights.”
Violence visited on the community and in Shirley’s own neighbourhood just three blocks away from church bombings in 1956, 1958 and 1962 showed it wasn't just a lack of opportunity but an actual effort to curtail advancement. “Being and trying to move forward, was not easy.”
In 1957, when Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite went up, the United States urged people to go into STEM. “And I was one of those people who began to be taught science, and I enjoyed it…and I thought, I can do that.”
Showing a photograph of the control room at the Johnson Space Center in Texas with just one woman and lots of white men sat on desks, Shirley explained, “Nobody in there looks like me…I had to become something I had never seen. I had to imagine myself into a room like this.”
All her classes were “very male and very white. And so, again, I'm not being affirmed in terms of moving into this area, but I went anyway.
“My feeling was that I can make change. If I am willing to take a seat at the table, and to move forward into a leadership role in order to do that; if I wanted things to be different for others going forward; I'm just going to have to help make that.”
Shirley got her doctorate at Pennsylvania State University then became a faculty member. After that she joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and became much more involved in policy.
She said, “I learned that somebody makes the rules; somebody actually sets up the guidelines; somebody defines what excellence is. Somebody does all these things, and I took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves in order to join that group.
“Because I began to understand that unless we were in the room, and not just on the edges of the room but seated at the table, that in fact nothing would change.”
When she was made was a member of the National Science Board she helped to change the criteria by which grants were given to include broadening participation much more focused on not only the research, but also the environment in which the research was conducted and who was doing the research.
“Identity does matter,” Shirley said. “It was very hard to be something I had never seen, and to in fact, have to imagine myself in the room.”
Visibility gives everyone the opportunity to tell our stories, she said, to talk about one’s whole self and whole identity. “Because it is important to those who are around us and behind us, that they understand the opportunities that are there.
“It's amazing to me that anytime a woman wants to stand up, there's always somebody who is ready to slap her down. You will always have detractors. The issue is whether or not you listen to the detractors. Whether or not you start to believe what they try to tell you about yourself.
“You have got to tell your own story. You have to understand what you are able to break. You have to make peace with that particular aspect and not let someone pull you into a corner where you are made to feel as though you are less than. And this is one of the things that I had to overcome.”
Shirley Malcom is senior advisor and director of SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In her more than 40-year tenure at the Association she has worked to improve the quality and increase access to education and careers in STEM as well as to enhance public science literacy. She is a former member of the National Science Board, the policymaking body of the U.S. National Science Foundation, and served on President Clinton’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. Find out more about Shirley and SEA Change
Aurora is Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector. Find out more and register your interest here.
Aurora: Your Future in HE
Face-to-face events taking place in 2022 will be of interest to Aurorans who are engaging with the main programme virtually on the 21/22 cohort, and are open to those who have previously engaged virtually but have not yet had a chance to meet face-to-face (from 19/20 and 20/21 cohorts). Find out more