Chancellor Douglas A. Girod

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s Remarks at the Central Exchange on Women in STEMM Fields

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Remarks as prepared for delivery.


It’s a pleasure to be here to discuss the topic of women in STEMM careers.

I’m especially honored to share the stage this afternoon with such an incredible group of women from some of the most outstanding companies in the region and the world.

Women have made tremendous progress in the workplace and in education over the past 50 years.

Even in historically male fields such as law, business and medicine, women have made impressive gains.

But in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine – commonly known as the STEMM fields – women’s progress has been notably slower, especially in engineering, computer science and physics.

This raises the obvious question: Why? Why are women increasingly entering the fields of medicine, law, and business, while such a small number are becoming scientists and engineers?

And what can we do about it?

Certainly, the underrepresentation of women in STEMM careers directly affects individual women and the individual STEMM fields.

But more broadly, this gap impacts everyone. It impacts our entire workforce … our economy … and ultimately, our national security and status as a global leader.

Because if our workforce is not taking advantage of the potential of all of our citizens, we’ll fall behind.

The underrepresentation of women in STEMM careers is especially concerning in light of our nation’s overall shortage of STEMM talent – which includes men and women.

With U.S companies struggling to find enough talent – male or female – to fill STEMM positions, the underrepresentation of women in STEMM fields becomes even more troublesome, and more urgent.

A generation ago, increasing the number of women in STEMM careers might have been seen as a luxury or a noble societal goal.

But today, it’s an absolute necessity. Because if companies can’t find the talent they need here in the United States, they’ll find it somewhere else.

So how do we address the shortage of women in STEMM careers?

Certainly, there’s no magic bullet. But if there were, it would look something like this: We must get girls excited and interested about STEMM early in their lives. And from there, we must support them and keep them engaged all the way through high school, college, their first internship, and into their careers.

Now, if that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And it doesn’t get easier when you consider the underlying causes of women’s underrepresentation in STEMM fields.

For starters, there are social and environmental factors shaping girls’ achievements and interest in STEMM fields.

There are factors within the corporate environment, which I’m sure my fellow panel members will address today.

There are factors within the university environment, which I’ve observed first-hand – first as a student, then as an aspiring young faculty member, and now as a university administrator.

And there’s the continuing role of bias, often operating at an unconscious level, that still permeates virtually every aspect of our society.

That’s a lot to overcome.

Consequently, it will take a comprehensive approach, involving a range of institutions – including K-12, higher education, business and industry.

All of us in the room here today have a role to play in addressing this topic.

Now, as the chancellor of a major research university, I happen to believe higher education is uniquely positioned to address the topic of women in STEMM careers. Not only does higher education have the capacity and resources to do it, but it’s also part of our mission.

At KU, for example, our mission is to educate leaders, build healthy communities and make discoveries that change the world. Addressing the shortage of women in STEMM careers fits well within that mission.

I’m proud to say that the University of Kansas is embracing this challenge and addressing the shortage of STEMM workers – both male and female – in a variety of ways.

The most visible example of this is our strategic plan, titled Bold Aspirations, which places an places an unprecedented emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. This five-year plan focuses heavily on STEMM fields in an effort to address society’s grandest challenges – like energy, drug development, and sustainability – all of which will require STEMM-driven solutions.

And as we continue our goal to be recognized as a top-tier public international research university, we continue to emphasize the STEMM fields like never before.

Related to this strategic plan, we’re expanding our School of Engineering. The expansion includes a new research building, along with a state government-funded expansion of our classroom facilities that will enable us to train more students for engineering careers. All of this is a response to Kansas businesses’ need for more engineers and STEMM workers.

We also continue to expand the KU Medical Center to increase our capacity to train students for careers in healthcare. Last year, we opened the new KU Medical Center at Salina campus, and expanded the KU Medical Center-Wichita campus to a four-year program.

We also opened the new School of Pharmacy at Wichita to address the state’s need for more pharmacists.

Also, we continue to move forward with our plan to create the KU School of Public Health. Once complete, the school will span KU campuses in Kansas City, Wichita, Salina, Lawrence and Overland Park, and will foster collaborative research, education and service among public health agencies statewide.

In addition to these steps to address the state’s overall shortage of STEMM workers,

KU has taken steps specifically geared toward women.

For example, our Office for Diversity in Science Training coordinates five federally funded programs that support KU students in the sciences, with particular efforts to recruit students from groups underrepresented in the sciences – including women.

And for faculty and staff, we have various professional development and mentoring organizations, including our KU Women in Medicine and Science group, a professional development organization at KU Medical Center.

I mentioned earlier the importance of influencing young women BEFORE they get to college.

And I know a number of companies – including many of those in the room here today – are doing outstanding work in this arena.

I’m proud to say KU reaches young women via a number of outstanding programs.

For example, KU sponsors the UKanTeach program, which is designed to encourage more students to become secondary math and science teachers – teachers who can ultimately go on to share a love of STEMM topics with the next generation of students.

We also sponsor the Research Experiences for Teachers program, which brings Kansas science teachers to Lawrence each summer to work with KU faculty on STEMM topics such as transportation, energy, and the environment. Those teachers then take their new lesson plans and new ideas back to classrooms across the state.

In addition, our School of Engineering has a number of outreach events aimed specifically at middle school and high school girls.

In fall and spring, we have what we call the Weekend of Engineering, where high school girls are invited to come to KU for a weekend camp.

We also have a late spring event for middle school girls and their parents in which the girls do hands-on activities and the parents learn about career options and how to keep their daughters interested in math and science.

But what I’m most proud of – and what goes beyond these individual programs and initiatives that I’ve mentioned – is KU’s overall, institution-wide commitment to supporting our top researchers, including our top female STEMM researchers, and showcasing them as leaders and role models.

Look around our campus – or even better, look in the newspapers and read about the work being done by our faculty and staff – and you’ll see what I mean.

For example, many of you know Barbara Timmermann, our world-renowned medicinal chemist who is exploring native plants as sources of remedies, supplements and pharmaceutical agents.

There’s Susan Williams, our associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and co-director of the KU Biodiesel Initiative, which integrates research spanning the entire biofuels production process.

There’s Julie Goonewardene, our associate vice chancellor of innovation and entrepreneurship, who heads our efforts to transform KU research into new products, and to create new KU startup companies.

And while we’re on the topic of KU startup companies, I’d point out that our last two KU spinouts – numbers 23 and 24 – were both created by female scientists.

One by Dr. Jennifer Klemp, and one by Dr. Lisa Stehno-Bittel. As a result, Jennifer and Lisa are now scientists and entrepreneurs.

And make no mistake about it: Every time one of these incredible female researchers makes a new discovery, develops a new cure or starts a new company, they’re serving as a role model for other women. This includes their colleagues, graduate assistants and undergraduate students. And it includes the young girls who are still too young to go to KU, but who are exactly the right age to begin developing an interest in STEMM fields – and a belief that they can succeed in them.

In closing, I want to reiterate the following points:

The shortage of women in STEMM careers is no longer a simple shortcoming that we can simply lament. It is now a threat to our economy and our status as a leader in the global economy.

To meet the challenge will require the commitment of all of us – business and industry, and higher education – to support and encourage young women from an early age, and throughout their career. And there must be sustained commitments by our leaders – including CEOs, chancellors and administrators – to promote women into leadership positions.

To provide them professional development opportunities.

To showcase their successes so that they can be role models.

And to ensure they play crucial roles in shaping the culture within organizations.

Thank you.


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Chancellor's Vision

The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world.

We will do that by raising the expectations we have for ourselves, the aspirations we have for our state, and the hopes we have for our world.