Dr. Donna Nelson
Issue advocacy, Strategic Communications Planning, Media Relations, Coalition Building
Dr. Donna Nelson, a female chemistry professor analyzed the math, science and engineering faculties at the top 50 universities in the United States (ranked by funding according to discipline). According to the National Organization for Women, the professor's data showed that women were severely under-represented in these schools' faculty membership, despite increasing numbers of female Ph.D. recipients.
Although the absence of women in science, engineering and mathematics had long been recognized, never before had university faculties been so exhaustively examined. Number-crun
ching revealed that although the number of female Ph.D's in technical fields had increased by nearly one-third in the four decades since the passage of key protections for gender equity in education, there had been almost NO increase in female tenure and tenure-track faculty in math, science and engineering. The situation was especially bleak for minority women: There was only a handful of African-American women in science and engineering departments and NO African-American or Hispanic female tenured or tenure-track professors in computer science.
In certain circles, the paucity of women in full professorships in the sciences was well-acknowledged. This was not a new story. But it should have been shocking to the general public in an era when most people believe women have equal employment protection under the law. Education, however, was not a subject in the headlines as there was no relevant legislation making its way through Congress, nor was there a shocking personal story to attract media attention, nor was this considered a crisis, and women's issues typically receive scant coverage. Thus, our first barrier was to determine whether we could shape the story in a way that could garner coverage.
Secondly, our researcher had limited funds to promote the story. Due to grant restrictions, those funds had to be spent before the end of the year, creating an urgent-though-arbitrary timeline.
Further, the data were not organized in an easily understandable format. They were buried in a mish-mash of unpublished charts and small articles in obscure publications. They were not slated for omnibus publication in a peer-reviewed journal, nor were they slated to be released by a well-known organization. Given the deadlines, we did not have time to solicit any of the above vehicles. Therefore the third barrier was a lack of a credible source for releasing the information.
Finally, Dr. Nelson's data revealed that women generally tend to leave the university environment after obtaining their Ph.D's. Yet women employed on college campuses were unwilling to speak out about the sexual harassment, verbal abuse, lack of federal grant monies, limited access to laboratory space and other impediments facing women in the university environment, perhaps for fear of putting their careers at risk. Thus, our final barriers were an absence of willing spokespeople and a lack of personal stories.
Turner Strategies used its expertise and full range of contacts in the area of women's rights to both dramatically publicize the story in the national media and to educate key Capitol Hill staff members.
Though we had been given a page of Internet links to a mish-mash of unpublished data tables and scores of obscure journal articles on various aspects of the research, our range of contacts allowed us to get the leading advocacy expert on the issue and an internationally recognized statistician to confirm that the research findings held true under more intense scrutiny.
Turner Strategies then developed a release strategy that would garner coverage. Our Ph.D. staffer in women's studies worked to knit the various data tables together into a report that told the story in a mediagenic fashion. But who would release such a complex report on such short notice? Thanks to our relationships in the women's community, we were able garner key commitments with just a few telephone calls. The heads of the leading advocacy organizations agreed to speak at a press event releasing the report. Participants included the American Association of University Women, the Association for Women in Science, the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Law Center and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. The involvement of these organizations and individuals helped us overcome many of our barriers.
Dr. Nelson drew on her contacts in the scientific community to involve the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society in the Congressional staff briefing that Turner Strategies organized for the afternoon of the press event.
Our relationships with key vendors and national media proved invaluable in making the release of the report a success. At the eleventh hour we learned that the New York Times had decided not to run the story, but by calling the national education editor we got the story back on track. We also circumvented the Associated Press's lack of interest by reaching out to its local reporter in Oklahoma.
Local vendors gave us discounted rates to videotape the events. The advocacy and scientific organizations posted the report, photos and video of the events on their websites, and activated their listservs to contact the U.S. Department of Education and members of both the Senate and House of Representatives.The event was a huge success. Over 40 newspapers covered the press event. Stories ran on National Public Radio, CNN, ABC Radio Network and other national broadcast outlets. The congressional briefing had standing-room-only attendance despite two inches of snow that morning.
Dr. Nelson was invited to participate in closed-door sessions at the AAAS to address this problem. The U.S. Department of Education made a commitment to use an upcoming General Accounting Office report on federal funding of research institutions to investigate charges of discrimination at federally funded universities. Relationships among advocacy community members were strengthened on this issue and the relevant organizations made commitments to pursue the problem vigorously. Hill staffers were motivated to examine solutions. The fight continues.