May 4, 2023
On Thursday, April 27 in a Fiterman Hall classroom, a Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Social Justice Week panel, “Women Trailblazers Leading the Charge for the Next Generation” featured six faculty and staff who work in non-traditional fields — those in which fewer than 25% are employed by one gender or the other, as defined the New York State Nontraditional Employment & Training (NET) program.
In March, two BMCC students received the NET Vanguard Award for excelling in a nontraditional field, and that is what inspired the panel, which included Barbara Lawrence, Professor and Deputy Chair, Mathematics Department; Catarina Mata, Associate Professor and research biologist, Science department; Tannesha McKoy, Sergeant, Public Safety; Yvonne Rigby, Printshop Coordinator/Specialist, BMCC Reprographics and Karen Wilson-Stevenson, Chief Operating Officer, BMCC Foundation fund, as well as Interim Vice President of Institutional Advancement.
While the topic of breaking barriers to opportunity is a serious one, the tone of the event was marked by laughter and frankness.
Coming from diverse fields and backgrounds, the panelists agreed that mentoring is a huge factor in bringing more women and all underrepresented students into a nontraditional field.
A moving moment during the panel was when Mathematics Professor Daniel Gil, in the audience, said, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Professor Barbara Lawrence.” Professor Gil talked about having been mentored by Dr. Lawrence when he was a BMCC student and recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s.
Three uniformed officers as well as Public Safety Director Michael Korn were in the audience to support panelist Sergeant McKoy, and talked about the benefits of recruiting more women to Public Safety leadership roles.
Many seeds were planted for opening doors to create more diverse ranks of staff and faculty at BMCC and supporting students in nontraditional career paths and majors. The conversation continues, and here are some highlights from the event.
Changing attitudes and rethinking teacher training can support diversity in nontraditional fields
When asked, “How would your field or industry benefit from the presence of more women?” Sergeant McKoy said, “I think it would matter to students because they can possibly see themselves in that role instead of thinking only a man can hold that position. It would also give us a different perspective on scheduling and management. One of the hardest things might be that it’s shift work — so if you have a family, you need to get your village together because you’ll be spending a lot of time at work.”
Professor Mata’s response to the question of what needs to change to bring more women into science is to change the way they’re taught STEM in pre-secondary settings.
“We have to train better and give more support to the science teachers of tomorrow,” she said, and shared that when she herself was a student, attending a Ph.D. program in the Netherlands, she saw about a 50/50 split between men and women classmates. At the post-doc level that began to change, reflecting fewer women, and the professors were all men.
“It was not socially acceptable to put your babies in daycare,” she said. “When I was starting out, a researcher told me, ‘If you’re going to do a master’s or a Ph.D., when are you going to get married?’ It was an attitude issue, something I didn’t see in my supposedly more chauvinist country of Portugal in southern Europe.”
Professor Lawrence said that in the early grades, female students need a role model, someone who loves math.
“Elementary school teachers need to love math and enjoy it,” she said. “How we train teachers has to change. Also, girls need to have more hands-on visual experiences. It’s changing, but oftentimes boys have more blocks and building toys that require visualization. I have to say growing up with brothers, that strengthened my visualization skills. So I think things like that can help students to like math more and continue to pursue it — and of course they need mentors.”
Professor Mata added, “They need somebody to believe in them.”
Class, ethnicity and other factors, compounded with gender, have profound impact
On the question of how the panelists’ respective career paths have been impacted by their class background, cultural identity, ethnicity and other factors — in addition to being women — they had a lot to say.
“Obviously, when it comes to Black women in mathematics, we are a very small percentage,” said Professor Lawrence. “So definitely, I think it’s important to have more Black females interested in pursuing careers in mathematics and STEM in general. I’m always recruiting. If I see a student who seems interested in math and picks it up quickly, I try to recruit them as math majors. We have to get them at that level, students coming in.”
Ms. Rigby said that in print shops throughout CUNY, there are not a lot of women overall. “People say you shouldn’t do these things, that there’s a lot of physical tasks that go into it, barriers I had to breach early on in my department. I might not be able to move the whole box of paper but I can move it one ream at a time. Also, I’m also Hispanic so that’s another thing. I start speaking Spanish and people are a bit thrown — but it’s definitely a good skill to have.”
She adds that while printing is regarded as a trade, it is expanding with digitization and other technologies, and that can attract more women and other groups to the field. “You can go into graphics, design, all the aspects that transpire to create the final product.”
Professor Mata stressed that giving students opportunities to do research with faculty “gets them in STEM and gets them to stay in. They get to do research, hands-on, then we take them to conferences, and you should see how happy they are, when these students win a prize at a conference. The conference is full of students from senior institutions and supposedly more prestigious institutions — then when one of our students is the one that gets the prize, that really builds their confidence. And that’s part of our jobs, to build their confidence.”
VP Wilson-Stevenson talked about a highly regarded, international credential for certified fundraising executives.
“It’s a practice-based credential,” she explained. “And there are probably at this juncture at least 12,000 folks worldwide who possess that credential. There are about 125 Black individuals in the world who possess that credential, men and women — and I am one of them.”
She went to say that one of the reasons she pursued that credential was to level the playing field for herself.
“Even though I had tons of experience, the field was dominated initially by white men, and then by white women, and when they saw this little Brown face coming, well, I had no credibility.”
She adds that even though she was “great on paper,” it didn’t matter. “And so I needed the credential to demonstrate that my expertise, my proven track record was equivalent to that of the next candidate. Color doesn’t matter on the test page, on the portfolio you have to submit. It’s a great equalizer.”
It’s critical to recruit and sustain marginalized groups in nontraditional majors and fields
Sergeant McKoy reiterated the importance of tuition assistance as a recruitment tool for marginalized groups.
“If they keep their mind focused, they can go to school and have their tuition paid by CUNY,” she said. “That welcomes them into the field of public safety and helps them understand what is expected of them in law enforcement. On top of learning the rules and regulations, it’s important to keep pursuing a degree, to move up in the ranks.”
Both Sergeant McKoy and Ms. Rigby hold bachelor’s degrees in psychology, and attest to the career benefit of advanced degrees.
In their case, it has deepened their understanding of team dynamics. Sergeant McKoy also supports her colleagues in ways to recognize mental health factors and triggers, in the course of their duties.
When asked what they would say to students considering a nontraditional field, Professor Mata said, “What has allowed me to learn and make contacts was taking the chances when they come. If somebody says, ‘Would you like to come to my lab and try that out in a different setting?’ take them up on it. Learn to conjugate the verb ‘to go.’ Many of our students are afraid of going somewhere else, trying new things, taking opportunities that might come by luck or chance. We have to help them understand that if luck is involved and you don’t take the opportunity, don’t expect things to follow you. Also, let people help you. When people want to mentor you, let them.”
An audience member attests to the power of mentoring
When asked what everyone on the panel has in common, VP Wilson-Stevenson said, “We’re terrific.”
Ms. Rigby said, “We’re phenomenal at our jobs. We care about our students, our community and we want them to move on and get the foundation they need, to continue in whatever direction they want.”
She also stressed that in all the fields represented on the panel, mentorship plays an important role in creating equity.
On a personal note, VP Wilson-Stevenson shared that, “We’ve all probably told ourselves that we’re not going to let ourselves stop us. My dad always used to tell me, ‘Don’t tell yourself no. There will be plenty of other people out there ready to do that. Don’t you do that to yourself.’”
Ms. Rigby summed it up: “Believe in yourself.”
Professor Lawrence observed that, “We all had setbacks but we didn’t let that define us.”
In the audience, Public Safety Director Korn shared this: “I’ve had the pleasure of working with just about everyone on the panel and we all have the same mission; that is, to work for the betterment of the college community.”
Another audience member, Sergeant Benoit Couamin, a Public Safety colleague of Sergeant McKoy said, “She trained me, when I came on board. She made me a better supervisor.”
Finally, audience member Professor Daniel Gil, who attended BMCC in the early 2000s when he had just immigrated from the Dominican Republic, spoke directly to Professor Lawrence.
“The work you do is the reason I’m here,” he said. “I’m a high school dropout, now a college math professor working on the last year of my Ph.D. The opportunity that you gave us long ago in the BMCC math lab; the mentorship, the community building, the space you created in the math lab — I thank you for that.”
On April 27, a BMCC Social Justice Week panel, “Women Trailblazers Leading the Charge for the Next Generation,” featured six faculty and staff who work in non-traditional fields — those in which fewer than 25% are employed by one gender or the other, according to the NYS Nontraditional Employment & Training (NET) program
- Coming from diverse fields and backgrounds, the panelists agreed that mentoring is a huge factor in bringing more women and all underrepresented students into a nontraditional field
Panelists also said that changing attitudes and rethinking teacher training can support diversity in nontraditional fields