Dr Gillian Small joined the City University of New York in 2001, served as University Dean for Research from 2003-2008, and was appointed Vice Chancellor for Research in 2008.
In 2013 Dr Small was designated the Insight honoree by The Feminist Press, for her commitment to advancing the careers of women in science.
AD: What made you want to become a scientist?
GS: It was part natural inquisitiveness, and part meeting the right mentors along the way. Not formally, but informally. I had a great biology teacher who I thought was pretty charismatic, and I wanted to emulate her. And then I also had some male mentors that made me want to stay in the field. I never thought I'd go into administration, I thought I was going to be a scientist forever. I am still a scientist, but I have cleared out my lab over recent years to really step up what I can do to support other people. And that was appropriate for me, because I think I can do more to support the next generation of scientists in this position.
AD: Why do you think it is important to have gender equity in STEM education?
GS: The short answer is it's important to have gender equity in everything. Women need to be, and want to be, in the workforce. There was a time when women didn't have the vote, and you could ask the same thing, why is it necessary for women to vote? I just think we need a balanced society.
AD: What causes the gender imbalance in STEM?
GS: Women have had to fight the idea that science isn’t really what they were cut out for; we're playing catch-up. And in general women deal with more family care issues than men do. By the time they get a job at a research university, the average person is in their early to mid thirties, which can create challenges for women who want to have a family. Many institutions allow them to stop the clock and take time off, but that means potentially jeopardizing external funding which is very difficult to get back.
There’s also a bias against women which is not necessarily overt, but is there. In a recent study from Yale in 2012, science faculty were given a CV with a male name on it and were more likely to select that applicant than when given the same CV with a female name on it.
AD: How does CUNY encourage increased enrolment and retention of women in STEM?
GS: CUNY Women in Science holds an annual Inspiring Women Scientists conference. For the 2014 conference I would like to target more mid-career scientists, and talk about the support we can put in place for them. There is a certain amount of support for junior faculty, but once they get tenure all of those support networks disappear and they're kind of on their own.
Other projects include the Gender Equity Project, the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and CUNY Nobel Science Challenge. The single most effective way to keep women in science is mentorship. They have to be exposed to other women who have been successful, and who have a balanced life.
AD: Does the State and City of New York provide enough support for programs, what more should be done if anything?
GS: We are very appreciative of any support that we get from the City and the State. We've had a pretty stable budget at CUNY from the State for the last few years, which has meant we can invest in more of these programs. So we're always appreciative of what we get, and we would always like more. As Mayor de Blasio starts rolling out his budget priorities, we're hopeful that some of them will support our work.
AD: What are the biggest challenges to achieving gender equity in STEM education?
GS: As with any minority group if people don’t see themselves, or an older version of themselves, in an area it’s very discouraging. Engineering has historically been male dominated, but we have great women engineers in our faculty. We do a pretty good job, but we can always do more. It's the same with computer sciences, for some reason it tends to be a male dominated area, and it's an up and coming area now so we need to get more women in to it.
AD: As Vice Chancellor for Research, what is your role in achieving gender equity in STEM?
GS: As a female bioscientist I feel strongly about supporting women in science. When I started there were no ‘women in science’ groups. I was kind of stubborn and didn't want to be known as a woman in science, I just wanted to be known as a scientist for the science that I do. It's only because of going through my career and seeing injustices and the imbalances at every step that now as an administrator of research I feel I would be lacking somewhat if I didn't try to do something to address that.
AD: Are you optimistic that gender parity will be achieved?
GS: Yes I am, but we are inching forward a little too slowly, especially on the salary issues. There have been some really major events that have highlighted the issue, the biggest being when the President of MIT said that there was a problem and that they were going to fix it. Yet, it is still not fixed. We have to do a better job.