May 24, 2012 - ASM Submits Comments to NAS on Seeking Solutions Conference

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Ph.D., Co-Chair
Committee on Advancing Institutional Transformation for Minority Women in Academia
Catherine Didion, Director, Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine
The National Academies
500 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001

Conference Information

Dear Dr. Villa Komaroff and Ms. Didion:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciates the opportunity to respond to the Academy’s request to submit written testimony for the upcoming conference hosted by the National Academies called Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia. As the largest single life science membership organization in the world with more than 38,000 members and a mission to advance the microbiological sciences, the ASM is concerned about full participation of underrepresented minority (URM) women in ASM and in microbiology. Indeed, the ASM recognizes the importance of full representation and the richness that diversity offers, as well as our country’s changing demographics.

ASM Demographics
As of May 15, 2012 ASM membership is 30,391a. Because member identification of race and ethnicity is voluntary, these data are incomplete.  Accordingly, only 21,435 identify gender.  Of those, 37% (7,916) are female. Using the same gender specific data for women, 10% (808) identify as URM women, representing 2.7% of the total membership.  Likewise, employment data are incomplete, but of the self identified women, 40% indicate they work in academia.  Unfortunately, workplace data for URM women are unavailable. While 55% of women indicate that they have an M.D. or Ph.D., only 40% of URM women have the same.

 ASM Programs to Enhance the Participation of URM Women
To actively address the concerns of full participation in ASM activities and to support and increase the career advancement of URM members, the ASM established two relevant committees: (a) The Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists (now the Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities, CMIIM) in 1984 and (b) The Committee on the Status of Women Microbiologists (CSWM) in 1979, as part of ASM’s Public and Scientific Affairs Board.  Both committees address URM women’s issues by focusing on URM and women, respectively. These issues include increased representation in the profession, increased participation in ASM leadership activities, training, career development and mentoring needs and relevant public policy issues.  In 1992, CMIIM was a key founder of the SuperMac, a coalition of minority affairs committees of other professional organizations with similar objectives.

While the CSWM realized notable successes in terms of increased participation in the microbiological sciences, career development and significant participation in ASM leadership activities, these did not include URM members.  As a result, during the 1990s, the ASM contracted with a consulting firm to conduct focus groups among URM members and appointed a Minority Task Force of ASM members to make recommendations for enhancing URM participation.  The findings, led to the establishment of a Minority Education Committee under the Board of Education (1993), an Underrepresented Members Committee (UMC) under the Membership Board (1997) and a Diversity Committee within the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM) (1999).  The American Academy of Microbiology is an honorific leadership group within the ASM and the AAM Diversity Committee was established to increase the number of URM and women in its membership.  One initiative of ASM’s UMC is an informal online mentoring program for URM members. 

URM Women Microbiologists
A brief overview of advancements to AAM membership and leadership positions within the ASM and the AAM, and ASM award receipts, demonstrates little success for URM, in general, and an even lesser degree among URM women.  Of the last 28 ASM presidents, 12 have been females.  The first and only URM male was elected president in 2008 and no URM women have held this post, or other top leadership positions.  In other metrics, URM women have extremely limited success in receiving ASM awards, with the exception, in general, of minority associated awards.  Over the past 50 years, 2700 individuals have been elected to the AAM (approximately 9-10% of ASM membership), but fewer than 9 (0.25- 0.30 %) are URM women.  A 2007 article by Johnson-Thompson provides an overview of African American participation in the ASM, beginning in 1921  Interestingly, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology was a female. Ruth Moore (1903 – 1994) earned the Ph.D. in bacteriology in 1933 from Ohio State University.  Though racial barriers prevented her attendance at some annual meetings, especially those below the Mason Dixon Line, she paid dues and attended her last meeting in Washington, DC in 1986.

For URM women some advances have included successful appointments on an editorial board, on ASM committees and as committee chairs (again, primarily on minority associated committees), elections to the AAM and award receipts.  Most of the latter, too, have been minority focused awards.  On the other hand, the ASM has made significant advancements in addressing pipeline issues.  These have included a variety of training programs from the undergraduate to postdoctoral levels and faculty travel awards to attend the ASM General meeting.  Additionally, for more than 10 years, the ASM has supported the NIH’s Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.  In every facet of these programs, URM women are represented, and in some instances, supersede the number of URM men.

Recent Survey of ASM URM Women Members
Given the limited demographic data relative to URM women and the realization that their representation in ASM programs is limited, the CMIIM and CSWM conducted a brief survey in of women members in May of 2012.  The purpose of the survey was three-fold:  (a) to obtain a better demographic representation of URM women membership, (b) to determine if ASM was meeting their needs, and (c) to obtain information on how the ASM might best meet their needs.

These data, though limited in total responses (n=143), came from 2.1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, 12.1% Asian American, 15.6% African American, 1.4% Hawaiian or other Islander and 73% white racial groups.  In terms of ethnicity, 9.9% identified as Hispanic and 90.1% identified as non-Hispanic.

Of the data received from URM women, some questions were skipped and calculable data could be obtained only from African Americans and Hispanic women. African Americans and Hispanic women reported an average of 17 and 18 membership years, respectively. More than 78 % of both groups reported ASM as their primary professional organization. 

Educational attainments revealed that Ph.D. degrees were earned by 59% African Americans and 69% Hispanics.  While 2.1% African Americans earned M.D. degrees, none were earned by  Hispanics. The range of years that African Americans earned the Ph.D. or M.D. was between 1978 and 2000; and the corresponding years for Hispanics were between 1967 and 2012.

Career Goals
Forty-six per cent (46%) of African Americans identified their original career goal as academia, while 50% of Hispanics identified academia.  The second highest rated choice was clinical (32%) for African Americans, followed by government (23%); and the second and third highest choices for Hispanics were industry (29%) and government (14%), respectively.  The majority of both groups reported having spent their greatest number of years in academia and the overwhelming majority are currently in tenured positions (African Americans 64%; Hispanics 69%) at research intensive universities (African Americans 72%; Hispanics 50%).  The majority of both groups believed their salaries to be commensurate with their colleague’s salaries.  Sixty-six per cent (66%) of African Americans were satisfied in their careers and 79% of Hispanics reported satisfaction.

How has ASM been helpful in URM women training and career advancement?
The majority (61%) of respondents cited that the ASM had been helpful in training advancement through various conferences and meetings, including ASM’s Kadner Institute, ASM’s Conference on Undergraduate Education (ASMCUE), both held annually, and the annual meeting.  These meetings not only provided training but allowed respondents to network, present their own research data and hear cutting edge research by other attendees.  Respondents also stated that ASM journals have been critical in increasing their scientific knowledge. 

In response to career advancement, only 50% responded positively.  However, similar to their written responses to training advancement, most respondents indicated that ASM had been helpful in their career advancement by providing high quality scientific journals, meetings and conferences and opportunities to network and make career connections at meetings.  Some respondents cited the ASM’s travel awards to attend the general meeting or ASMCUE, as beneficial.  ASM certification and continuing education programs were also listed as career advancement tools.

How might ASM and other organizations be more helpful in advancing women of color in academia?
A number of respondents were not certain about how ASM and other organizations could be more helpful in advancing women of color in academia, which indicates that articulating the problem may be one of the main difficulties in providing assistance.  Some of the solutions offered by respondents included providing more encouragement for young women of color and women in general in early education (K-12) and college to promote career awareness and opportunities.  Other respondents suggested that more mentoring programs be developed to help young women as they travel through the different levels of education, including programs to help women write successful grant proposals and also programs that would allow women with families to take time off without fear of reprisal to have and raise children.  Some respondents said that the problem with women of color advancing in academia was not isolated to just women of color, but all women have to deal with cultural and institutional biases.  ASM was also complimented on the fact that the organization has had women in high profile leadership roles.  These examples of successful women in science should be highlighted, either through award programs or publicizing in newsletters.  It seems that the overall theme of responses was that while maybe a clear cut solution to addressing the problem is not known, “continual drum beating” about the problem is critical to ensure that the discussion is on-going to find solutions.

As with other professional organizations and government initiatives, ASM has not focused on programs to specifically support the career advancement of URM women scientists and microbiologists.  Their needs have been traditionally addressed within the programs for URM and for women.  It is clear that these programs have not been effective, though some strides have been made within URM scientists’ programs.  Interestingly enough, in 1976, Malcom et al. at the AAAS published “The Double Bind:  The Price of Being a Minority Woman Scientist” http://archives.African  An influential document, addressing the low participation of URM women in the sciences, much of its findings and recommendations were unique to URM women microbiologists and those pursuing this career path. A follow-up symposium, 35 years later in 2011, “Unraveling the Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM” revisited this topic.  Data presented revealed that while URM made up 0.6% of earned doctorates in 1975, by 2008, this number had increased to 6%.  However, the participation of URM in productive careers as compared to white women and men was still dismal.  One important causative factor was the failure in thesis publications which is indicative of a total failure of proper mentoring along the training and career pathway and limits career advancement.  Again, though this covers the entire STEM field, anecdotal information suggests that this is a barrier to full participation of URM women in the microbiological sciences, as well.

In summary, ASM clearly has provided much administrative and supportive attention to increasing the numbers and full participation of URM women microbiologists.  The many training programs appear to have been successful in increasing numbers, but full participation in the ASM’s activities and career advancements have not been as successful when compared to majority men and women.  While many of the barriers that confront URM women are shared by all women, it is apparent that URM women do not receive similar assistance to include supportive, strong and meaningful mentoring as those enjoyed by men and a significant cohort of women.  Interestingly, the recent survey, though limited in responses, revealed that URM women are generally satisfied in their careers and are generally satisfied with career support provided by ASM.  Lacking in this survey was a query to address participation in ASM leadership activities. However, the survey did provide suggestions for ASM to add to its support of URM women. The ASM will attempt to use the information from this survey and that from the NAS Conference to enhance its efforts in supporting URM women microbiologists.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this conference.


Roberto Kolter, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board
Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities

[a]The demographic information for this section was collected on May 15, 2012.  The ASM is in its membership renewal cycle for 2012 and the information collected was based on members who had renewed as of May 15, 2012.