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2009 Graduate Women Survey
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Though about half of undergraduates are women, among graduate students, women are outnumbered by men two-to-one. For these women, the campus can be an isolating place.

Sensing a lack of community among graduate women, Furman recently founded Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT), which hopes to provide career-building and networking opportunities.

“There’s definitely a gap here at MIT,” said Kay D. Furman ’07, who is a graduate student in the Division of Health, Science & Technology. “Women [between different departments] don’t even get to meet each other.” Though a few departments have women’s groups, Furman thinks GWAMIT can be an umbrella group that will organize activities and provide support to graduate women across all departments.

When women are minority of the population it is important to bring them together, Furman explained.

“Women need to feel a sense of community, they need a safe place to talk about things where they can drop down their guard of their professional image — a place where they can relax a little and not have to put up that defense,” she said.

GWAMIT will offer unique services

The group hopes to run a mentoring program that matches graduate students with either professional women within or outside of their department. Though many departments run sessions on career-building, Furman also sees a need for seminars on the work-life balance, and more general skills for promoting success, such as networking and communication skills for women in male-dominated fields.

“I think their emphasis on professional development is key,” said Blanch E. Staton, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Students, regarding the new group. “I think the careers office does a good job in terms of increasing awareness of diverse opportunities, but there is always more work we can do.”

GWAMIT celebrated their internal kickoff earlier last January 28, but the plans to host its external kickoff event to the wider MIT community sometime this April with a keynote speaker and several spring seminar series to follow.

Another defining characteristic of the group, will be their tendency to approach common topics from more fresh viewpoints, says co-founder Jean Yang G. “When choosing panels of speakers, we always chose women with perfect work life balance. I want to hear from someone who doesn’t have kids; I’d like to hear from a single mother. I’d like to try to ask some more provocative questions.”

GWAMIT also plans to collaborate with events for departmental groups, such MIT Sloan Women in Management (SWIM). President of the SWIM, Veena Jayadeva G, was enthusiastic about the idea of opening up some of the group’s more general events to a wider audience, soon with the help of GWAMIT.

“There’s so much stuff happening at MIT, and it’s really hard to find what going on beyond departments,” Jayadeva said. “This group [GWAMIT] is a much more formalized way to go to one place and say ‘ya this is what’s going on.’”

For reasons like these, “the group has done a really nice job of reaching out to multiple offices throughout the campus and being pretty innate with trying not to overlap with what’s already going on in campus, focusing really complimentary efforts” said Alicia Erwin, Assistant Director of Student Activities.

“We’re pretty excited about the formation of GWAMIT,” the two agreed.

Inspiration from Harvard group

Furman, who is a full-time graduate student at both MIT and Harvard, got the idea for GWAMIT from a similar group at Harvard. The Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, or HGWISE, was founded following Larry Summers’s controversial comment that “innate” differences between men and women may explain why fewer women pursue successful careers in math and science.

Furman said that she was impressed with the organization of the group, which runs a mentoring program, numerous workshops, informational panels, and social events.

The mentoring program was especially memorable. “You don’t really know what mentoring is, but when you find a mentor and see the insight they have, you realize the importance,” she said. “[The] experience gave me new perspectives on what grad student women services could be.”

At Harvard, Furman noticed that the women were much more tight-knit. “Grad women at MIT tend to feel more isolated,” she said. “At Harvard science and engineering is encompassed in a much smaller subunit of the schools; I would guess the engineering school houses some seven or eight subjects that at MIT would be divided into different departments and fields.”

“Here a woman in chemistry would never see a woman in Sloan or a woman in architecture,” which is why GWAMIT could help, she said.

Recognizing grad women’s needs

In December, an e-mail survey asking current graduate women how they take advantage of support services at the Institute was sent out. Roughly 1,900 of the 1,916 female graduate students responded to the survey, co-organized by the Graduate Student Council, Student Activity Office, and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education.

Preliminary results of the survey show that many graduate women are unaware of several major resources available to them such as “help formulating initiatives,” “building interdepartmental connections,” and “receiving personal counseling from faculty and staff.”

Graduate women responded that they viewed “career planning guidance” and “information regarding existing MIT resources for graduate women” to be among the most relevant resources of interest—a point that especially resonated with Furman and the other GWAMIT co-founders.

“As an undergraduate, I knew every resource at MIT because it was hit over my head through GRTs and through orientation events,” said Furman. “But as a graduate student, you don’t really find out about things. Your advisor doesn’t necessarily know the resources available, departments don’t necessarily tell you like dorms would, orientations are great, but some people don’t attend or go to the content related activities.”

According to Furman, grad students are much more independent and want something they can find on their own time. “We really think that looks like a website that compiles all sorts of resources available all at one place,” she said.

For example “S^3….no one would ever [think to] Google search for that. Instead, we need people or a website to funnel for that.”

Building Fellowship

Aside from focusing on career-building events and resource sharing media alone, GWAMIT founders also stressed the benefit of social activities with other women as part of their central philosophy.

“There’s an importance in sharing stories,” Furman said. “Men get out, have beers and talk about some professor, and they don’t include women all the time. Women also need time to co-miserate, share success, and really feel validated in some sense,” Furman said.

Realizing that many graduate women work in a male dominated field, GWAMIT co-founders also hope that the social interaction with other women in provide a brief change of scenery for the female MIT grad student.

“Being around men all the time can be exhausting,” Furman said. “One woman [I talked to] said she hadn’t had another conversation with another woman in five weeks, outside of her CVS pharmacist.”

GWAMIT recently launched their new website, which compiles a list of resources and groups available for graduate women at MIT and announces the group’s upcoming events. It can be found at: http://gsc.mit.edu/gwamit.