Symposium addresses gender issues

Photo courtesy of Camille Pendley

The Offices of the President and Institute Diversity hosted the Eighth Annual Diversity Symposium with a theme of “Celebrating Women at Georgia Tech.”

Held in both the Global Learning Center and the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, the day focused on what can be done to create and support gender equity at Tech.

Gender equity, in the eyes of the Symposium, is much more than just a ratio; it further encompasses how the Tech culture and administration treats and values its members.

In Fall 2016, the Office of the President held multiple listening sessions on “inclusiveness and gender equity” with faculty, staff and students.

From those discussions, Tech developed 11 Gender Equity Initiatives to be worked towards in the upcoming years, many of which were cornerstones of discussion at the Diversity Symposium.

“If you have 100 priorities, you really have no priorities,” said Archie Ervin, Vice President of Institute Diversity. “So we tried to pick those 11 that seemed to be most salient, most important, and most impactful, and we went
with those.”

The 11 Gender Equity Initiatives, enumerated on Institute Diversity’s website, are grouped under four different Impact Areas: hiring, promotion and tenure, professional and leadership development, leadership appointments, and recognition and increased visibility. Each tackle the problem
of gender inequity from different angles.

The philosophy is that since gender equity is such a large, expansive topic, any strategy to achieve it requires a multifaceted approach.

The Gender Equity Initiatives are linked by the common goals of reducing implicit bias and increasing transparency at all levels of Tech, Ervin explains.

“What you don’t want is implicit bias operating on processes of evaluation of competence without acknowledging its impact on that process, and then you need to find ways to mitigate against that,”
Ervin said.

“You cannot derive the benefits from a diverse community unless people are being successful when they are here,” Ervin said. “You have to ensure that people have, by design, fair, open and transparent pathways to success.”

Last Friday’s symposium came under the fourth impact area of increasing visibility of gender bias and inclusion issues on campus by bringing Tech’s diverse community together to brainstorm.

“I want today to be a day of conversation, a day of discussion,” Ervin said at the start of the symposium, guiding the focus toward active idea generation in the three morning panels and two afternoon workshops planned for the day.

The first morning panel, “Perspectives on Gender Equality and Inclusion at Georgia Tech,” brought together multiple viewpoints on the current challenges Tech faces, beginning the conversations that would last throughout the day. Student and faculty on the panel were encouraged to talk candidly about their experiences regarding gender representation on campus.

Nagela Nukuna, President of the Undergraduate Student Government Association, spoke about student culture and the difficulty some female students have in navigating conflicting social norms in a majority-male student body.

“College is a time for learning about yourself, and finding yourself, and finding your inner confidence personality and if you haven’t done that yet, then those social cultures really affect on how you interact with other students,” Nukuna said.

She also discussed the role that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia’s new statewide sexual misconduct policy, enacted last July, will have on the students at Tech.

“That also finds its way into how students, and females especially, really navigate the college experience,” Nukuna said.

Mariam Asad, a Digital Media graduate student who teaches an LMC class in interaction design, talked about the importance of staying connected with the well-being of her students.

“Checking in is a really small task that we can do, but goes a really long way. I actually have a calendar for check-ins — if I tell a student that I’m going to follow up with them, I will,” Asad said. “And something as small as that, just saying, hey, how’s it going, how was that cold that you had, how was that homework thing that you didn’t really understand, remember that question you had in class? Just making small notes like these validate their experiences.”

While problems of gender equity take a different form at the faculty level, the core of the matter is similar: ensuring that each person has equal voice and opportunity in Georgia Tech.

Female faculty are often underrepresented both in leadership position and in general in the faculty departments, and there is a concern that promotion and nomination processes in the overall pipeline aren’t working properly.

“It’s interesting being in a space like Electrical Engineering,” said Jennifer Hasler, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I think when I started, when I did my undergrad, I think it was two or three percent female, when I started at Georgia Tech twenty years ago it was about eight percent, and it’s about eight percent or so now.

“It’s kind of just built into the culture — it exists, and it’s often been a point of frustration about why can’t we get more, and I know that frustration seems to grow even more as you get into the industry.”

“It becomes a very male culture, unintentionally,” Hasler said. “But how do you begin to deal with that question? It’s hard to do if the numbers are so small.”

During the panel session, audience members offered their own comments. “We need to think about micro-affirmations: tiny things that we do to acknowledge people actually make a much bigger difference than we think,” one audience member said.

With the awards presented during the luncheon at noon, four Gender Equity Champion Award winners were recognized. The awards went out a faculty member, a staff member, a student and an organization unit “for significantly demonstrating gender diversity, equity and inclusion within the Georgia Tech campus community.” In addition to the main awards, the 50 Faces of Inclusive Excellence of 2016 were recognized for their efforts promoting diversity around campus.

“We have the best scholars from the world here at Georgia Tech, we have the best students from the world here at Georgia Tech, and we have the best faculty from the world here at Georgia Tech,” said Ervin early in the day. “Our next opportunity is to figure out how to make sure that we do in fact embrace and leverage all this diversity so it will turn to our favor. I believe that our continued promise in the 21st century is absolutely contingent on us
getting this right.”