Office of the President

March 8, 2019

Working toward gender equity

Ana Mari Cauce

The concept of gender equity is a relatively new one in human history –  the idea that gender parity is something we should strive toward and something we all benefit from, whether on our faculty, in our labs and classrooms, in our boardrooms, or in our government, has taken root slowly, over generations. But as we celebrate International Women’s Day and its theme of gender equity, we can point to significant progress in our march toward equitable representation, even as we rededicate ourselves to building a world that reflects and represents all of our incredible diversity.

More than half of our undergraduates are women, not surprising given that women now make up more than 56 percent of U.S. college students. Yet even as more and more women have earned degrees, statistically, they continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership and power, in industries from technology to medicine to athletics. Across the board, women continue to face a pay gap. And around the world, women face hurdles not only to their professional and educational ambitions, but to their basic human rights and personal autonomy. So while we should celebrate the gains we’ve made, there is a lot more work to do.

Here at the University of Washington, women’s voices and decision-making are front and center. Our faculty is home to women who are rock stars in their fields, including Mary-Claire King, winner of the Lasker Prize for her achievements in genetics; Angelina Godoy, founding director of our Center for Human Rights; Alexes Harris, who is advancing criminal justice reform; Kate Starbird, who is exploring how disinformation spreads on line; Margaret O’Mara, a historian exploring the connections between politics and technology; Patricia Kuhl, whose research is helping us understand how babies learn; Kristina Olson, whose research into how children develop gender identity earned her a MacArthur “Genius” Grant; and too many more to name. Currently, nine of the UW’s 19 deans are women, as are four of our ten Regents. Both of our Seattle-campus student government organizations, ASUW and GPSS, are helmed by women and we are one of only a handful of universities competing at the highest level of athletics with a female athletic director.

In local and state leadership, women serve as Seattle’s mayor, police chief, schools superintendent and King County sheriff. They also make up half of Washington’s U.S. representatives, and we are one of only six states represented by two women in the U.S. Senate. Yet, in our nation’s entire history, only 56 women have ever served in the Senate, almost half of whom are serving now.

But the future looks bright. Last weekend, at their annual Women of Courage gala, the UW Women’s Center honored the 20th anniversary of Making Connections, a STEM-focused college readiness program that helps low-income students, primarily girls, achieve a college degree. The success of this program has been phenomenal – 100 percent of the students enrolled in Making Connections since 2007 have gone on to enroll in college, and nearly three-fourths are pursuing a degree in a STEM related field. This program embodies our mission of impact, and it is changing the lives of the young women by helping them acquire the skills and knowledge they need to thrive, and to be in a position to increase fairness and equity in the highly competitive tech industry. We urgently need their energy and determination if we are to build on momentum and continue to forge a world that is equitable and more inclusive overall.

Writing for The Conversation, three Australian scholars considered the question, “Why is gender equity in STEM a worthwhile pursuit?” Their conclusion: “For the same reason that diversity of all kinds is to be promoted and celebrated…Diversity brings unique perspectives…increasing the probability of creative, innovative solutions to the world’s grand challenges.” So, while we have made progress worth celebrating, we also have far to go to achieve a truly equitable world.

Our future depends on it.