Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Personal Retrospect and Collective Prospect: Women in Science and Technology in the 21st Century"


Thank you, Corinthe. I’m just delighted to be here tonight, not so much as first lady of IU but as a member of the IU School of Informatics. It’s a genuine pleasure to count you as colleagues. I especially want to thank Dean Bobby Schnabel, whom I’ve known since my Internet2 days before either of us came to Bloomington, for appointing me as an adjunct faculty and for his vision that places Informatics in the vanguard of diversity and inclusiveness. I also want to thank Dennis Groth for welcoming me to Informatics, and Maureen Biggers for so warmly pulling me into the fold.

I’m also delighted to be here celebrating Women in Computing week and Women’s History month. And as a reflection of my own personal history, I’d like to introduce my mother, Eunice Burns, who is visiting from Ann Arbor.

Women in Science and Technology

I thought I would use this talk tonight to make some historical reflections, back to my mother’s generation and mine as we also think about yours and the future of women in technology and science. We’re still looking at too few women in scientific and technical careers, and too many still being turned off by barriers that many of us hoped would have dropped long ago.

According to a Department of Education study, in 2003 women held only 8.5% of full-time faculty and instructional positions in engineering at degree-granting institutions nation-wide, with just 3.2% held by women of color. In the physical sciences, 17.2% of such positions were held by women (4.4% held by women of color), and in computer science, the numbers were better but still not great—30.6% for women overall, 5.6% for women of color.

More alarmingly, in another study last year published in the MIT Technology Review, an estimated 3,000 PhD-trained scientists exit the scientific workforce every year, an attrition that costs over a billion dollars in lost productivity. Clearly we have not yet adequately addressed the factors that contribute to women being less attracted to scientific and technical disciplines, and the obstacles that many face when they move forward in their careers, often juggling family obligations simultaneously. Fortunately, there’s a lot of good work underway to address these issues, and I applaud the work that Women in Computing is doing—it’s important, and I hope the rest of your week is a great success, and a lot of fun!

My Background

Let me start by telling you a little more about my background and why science and math literacy is important to me. The first reason has to do with my father, who was a professor of radiation biology at the University of Michigan. I often tagged along when he went to the lab, and he would set me at a bench and let me participate in his experiments. It was fascinating, and he helped me feel that science was something I could understand and enjoy. I didn’t pursue a career in science but I got an early understanding of why one’s own individual, hands-on experiences with science are so important to learning, and of course to developing real interest.

My mother is my second reason. She served on Ann Arbor City Council in the ‘60s, ran for mayor in 1965, and later went on to lead the Commission for Women at the University of Michigan. She had wanted to be Chemistry major in college but was strongly discouraged because even teaching chemistry was not a “suitable” area for a woman. She wound up as a history major, a subject she disliked. She was a real role model for me as I came into adulthood—her experiences helped form my belief that I should be my own person, economically and intellectually. (And in the way of rebellious teenage daughters, knowing she disliked history I preceded to major in just that when I was in college.)

And I intended to go on in history, and in fact was taking courses in graduate school when, as a way to bring in some income while my first husband and I started our family, I took a job with Merit, the state networking organization in Michigan. It was supposed to be temporary until I could sort out how I was going to start my academic career. But this was just after the basic protocols that underlie the Internet we use today were standardized and just after the first PC came out, and a lot of very creative engineers and scientists were caught up in one of the most significant waves of innovation in the 20th century. I was hooked, and I went on to a career in IT, much of it in the central IT organization at Michigan.

I think in part because I was not a computer scientist or network engineer by background and probably due to heeding my inner control freak, I moved into management positions fairly early. I wound up, nearly 20 years later, as an executive director with Internet2, the national consortium that is building the next generation of the Internet, and along the way I engaged in a number of programs focused on leadership development and particularly development of women leaders, because certainly in IT and computer science then, as now, there were so few.

I bring up my parents and my mother’s experience in particular because, along with an experience of my daughter’s years later, they combined catalytically to motivate me to use my new role at IU to be an advocate for STEM education. When she was in 7th grade, my first daughter, Carol, an otherwise excellent student, was struggling in algebra class. She brought home a C on a test and was terribly upset. But she brought home something else as well. Her teacher had told her not to worry about getting a C because she probably wasn’t going to grow up to be a mathematician anyway. And this was from a female teacher, in 1995. It was a depressing moment—I thought we had made far more progress than that. I should point out that this particular teacher might have said the same thing to one of Carol’s male classmates, but that’s hardly the kind of equity we’ve been working for!

The National Picture: Life Sciences and Stem Education

We may all have such little experiences of discouragement (and ideally ones we just work past). But what happens is we look at these snapshots from my life in a broader context? Recent reports released by the National Academies and the Spellings Commission both outline a looming crisis in math and science education that threatens to put our nation’s position as a world leader in science at risk. This is especially true as we live and work in an increasingly global, knowledge-based economy. The problem is born in part from the shift away from traditional heavy manufacturing and agricultural economies to those, like the life sciences, that depend on a workforce competent in math, science, and technology. And it also stems from the fact that as a nation, we are not producing enough scientists, doctors, and engineers to meet projected demand for these professions into the future. Furthermore, according to the National Science Board, a significant portion of the doctoral degrees awarded in engineering and the natural sciences are going to foreign-born students, who increasingly return home.

This problem hits very close to home. We might call this the Bio-Belt since life sciences industries are fairly booming along a stretch that includes Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. As recently as 2006, the Battelle Institute ranked Indiana in the top three states nationwide for life sciences industries. In fact, more than 578,000 Indiana jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the health industry (Deloitte & Touche 2005). These are jobs that require at the very minimum basic scientific and mathematical literacy, and some, of course, require more than that.

But when we look at the individuals earning degrees in STEM fields, another issue emerges, and one that offers a potential solution. More young women than young men are attending college these days (in some areas of the country the gap is 54% to 46%). And yet, women’s rates of participation in STEM disciplines remain disproportionately low. We have increasing numbers of Hispanics and African Americans who are not pursuing post-secondary education at all. Clearly if we can boost participation by women and minorities in STEM-related fields, it will address our workforce needs as well as our fundamental goals for equity and diversity.

A Culture of Success: Obstacles and Possibilities

I also believe that as important as science and math literacy is for the needs of the workplace, its value extends beyond that. Developing an appreciation of (and comfort with) science and mathematics is intimately tied to good citizenship. How can we participate fully and with confidence in our own educations, our healthcare, our society, or our government when we are given the excuse to be mediocre? Leon Lederman, a particle physicist and Nobel laureate, says “a public that has a sense of science makes democracy work. If you don’t understand the language in which people are discussing global warming or all the other issues, you cannot have a democracy.” Whether we are talking about a seventh-grade girl who is struggling with algebra, a factory worker faced with an increasingly automated production process, an aspiring automotive engineer, or a high school science teacher working to engage a classroom of restless 10th graders, we must provide opportunities for success at the same time as we expect excellence.

More than ever, math and science education is crucial to national prosperity. And this is a matter that concerns all of us. Lasting improvements in STEM education must involve educators and learners at every level from preschool through college. In fact, the National Academy’s first recommendation to address the significant gaps they identified is titled, “10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds, and K-12 Science and Mathematics Education.”

Fortunately, Indiana is stepping up to address these workforce demands. We have the Core 40 diploma for Indiana high schools, which includes requirements in math and science that exceed national requirements. Indiana 4th graders perform extremely well on standardized math tests, scoring in the top 10 among entire countries. Indiana has also started several New Tech and Early Tech high schools, including one right here in Bloomington. New Tech high schools focus on increasing math and science competency and use problem-based learning as the primary approach throughout the curriculum. Early Tech high schools will graduate students not only with a high school diploma but an associate’s degree or close to it.

And there’s I-STEM, a statewide initiative in which IU, Purdue and other universities around the state participate. I-STEM is focused on a number of things, including redesigning middle school and high school mathematics curricula as well as providing the professional development needed to, among other outcomes, enable Indiana’s teachers to increase the success of female and minority students in these fields.

Addressing the Gap

STEM education is largely a pipeline strategy and as such, is of course essential to our future. But we need to also focus on the experience of women in post-secondary education—like all of you—as well as women in scientific and technical careers. The barriers that I’ve seen and experienced over the past 20 years run very deep, having to do with the challenge of balancing work and family, and the slow pace of change in organizational and societal culture. There has been real progress—the ability of junior faculty women (and men) to stop the tenure clock has become standard policy at universities, and other family-friendly policies in the workplace, such as the ability to work from home, maintain a flexible schedule, take advantage of more reasonable maternity and parental leave policies, etc., are the norm rather than the exception.

We’re also making great progress in understanding the value of mentoring, and of role models. Clearly, the more women move into senior positions in academia and industry, the greater the odds that the younger generation of women will have access to mentors who can help nourish careers and provide valuable guidance. And let’s not forget that men benefit from female role models as well, just as they have also benefitted from the kinds of policies I mentioned earlier. Numerous national organizations, such as the ACM’s Women in Computing group and of course the one co-founded by our Dean, the National Center for Women and IT, are critical resources for networking that spans institutions and companies. And here in Informatics, Women in Computing serves an essential role in fostering mentoring networks not only within the School but with women in scientific and technical fields across the university. Having been reared by such an involved mother, I know how critical role models are for opening up one’s mind to possibilities.


But of course, much work remains to be done. I hope that the outmoded biases, policies, and organizational practices that worked against openness, inclusivity, and diversity will truly fall away in this new century. And it is essential to all of our futures that they do. We’re in an era where technology, particularly computer technology, is both more pervasive than it’s ever been, and also more individually empowering. We have been in a kind of process of disintermediating much of how we get what we need—things that used to be done for us by people we can now do ourselves. We get money from an ATM, pay our bills online, scan our own groceries, shop for clothes without leaving home, etc. Now, it may be that my generation is more aware of this change than many of you are—my mother is fond of telling me that when she was young, she used to run outside to watch an airplane flying overhead—it was that unusual a sight. But of course the trend towards greater integration of technology is unmistakable.

In fact, there are those who predict we’re on the cusp of a new explosion in how technology shapes our lives. Ray Kurzweil’s book, “The Singularity is Now,” lays out a vision of the future “during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” The “singularity” is the moment when we have brought our biological and technical worlds together, and Kurzweil believes the pace of change is picking up to such an extent that, if one is graphing change over time, we are rapidly approaching “the knee of the curve” when the growth pace becomes almost vertical.

Richard Atkinson, former president of the University of California system, gave the commencement address last December, and he dubbed this generation of college students “the Singularity generation” because he believes it will be those of you in this room who will help create and manage this change. And it must be all of us, not just those who look like the successful scientists and engineers of the past, with all due respect to my father’s generation and my own. We need all of our smart, compassionate, optimistic and energetic citizens engaged, bringing diversity of perspective to bear on the challenges and opportunities of the future.

We are looking forward as we celebrate the past, and I’m thrilled to be part of a community and a School that is not settling for the status quo, but rather is embracing the challenge of building a diverse and inclusive future.

Thank you.