Editor’s Note: This is part of our ongoing look at the lack of female representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. See entire project here.

(Credit: Association for Women in Science)

The Association for Women in Science was founded in 1971, at a time when some medical texts — believe it or not — used pornographic images to teach medical students about the female anatomy.

AWIS worked successfully with a leading publisher to change the medical texts, but its continued work to make science a better place for women has been “a tough road to hoe,” says Janet Bandows Koster, the organization’s executive director and CEO.

A nonprofit funded in part by membership dues and donations, AWIS uses a two-prong approach of research and advocacy to help women in science overcome job discrimination, unequal pay and professional isolation. The group has a network of over 60 chapters in cities from Buffalo, N.Y to Palo Alto, Calif., and estimates it has impacted around 20,000 STEM professionals through its efforts (which also include leadership training programs, online webinars and monthly newsletters).

AWIS also partners with other organizations — recently, it joined forces with the Society of Women Engineers — to further its work on public-policy initiatives.

In recent history, AWIS’s work contributed to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — an issue relevant to STEM women because, for those graduating from PhD programs, “their first jobs out already showed salary discrepancies,” Koster says, which “only grow as they continue along career trajectories.”

Going forward, AWIS hopes to additionally influence the expansion of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, while improving conditions for women — and men — who work in STEM while raising families.

A photograph of the AWIS governance board. (Credit: Association for Women in Science)
A photograph of the AWIS governance board. (Credit: Association for Women in Science)

“There’s this whole issue surrounding family-friendly policies — maternal leave, paternal leave, etc.,” Koster says. “We’re the only country besides Papua New Guinea that doesn’t have federally mandated maternal leave.”

In the meantime, AWIS continues to work toward rectifying the systemic issues facing women in STEM.

After all, as a report by Million Women Mentors found, out of 100 female undergraduates, only 12 graduate with a degree in a STEM major and a mere 3 still work in STEM careers 10 years after graduating. And a global work-life survey conducted by AWIS also highlights the many problems facing grown women in the STEM world.

“We [in the United States] pay a lot of attention to getting girls [into STEM],” Koster says. “We’re not paying as much attention to keeping them in.”

She adds that the high dropout rate has financial ramifications — for example, when a woman leaves a potentially lucrative STEM field, she hurts her ability to repay the student debt she accrued while completing all of the schooling necessary for a career in science.

Koster says it’s all part of why the organization will never stop in its publicly stated mission to help women in the STEM fields achieve their full potential.

For a List of All Project Posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship