Largest multi-disciplinary organization for women in STEM opens West Michigan chapter

GVL/Kevin Sielaff - Karen Gibson speaks at Grand Valleys annual Convocation ceremonies on Friday, August 26, 2016.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL/Kevin Sielaff – Karen Gibson speaks at Grand Valley’s annual Convocation ceremonies on Friday, August 26, 2016.

Shae Slaughter

After a long wait, West Michigan is now home to its own chapter of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS). This change is nothing short of a victory for those who have worked for a year and a half to create a chapter of this national organization.

The efforts used to bring an AWIS chapter to West Michigan were inter-institutional, with the majority of help coming from Grand Valley State University, the Van Andel Institute and Hope College. Each of these institutions contributed to making the steps that were necessary in becoming a fully functioning chapter including being an affiliate group for a year, having 20 members at the national level and also being able to show evidence that they were benefiting the community.

Throughout the year and a half it took to secure an official status, around 20 faculty members met regularly to advance the chapter’s progress.

As an official chapter, AWIS-WM hopes to continue to benefit the community. The national organization states that AWIS “is the largest multi-disciplinary organization for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). AWIS is involved in advocacy, research, and professional development and is dedicated to driving excellence in STEM.” These are some of the ideals the West Michigan chapter wishes to uphold.

Karen Gipson, president of the inaugural governing board and GVSU professor, said “the strategic plan of AWIS-WM is focused on networking, education and service.”

Ultimately, the group wishes to equal the playing field in STEM careers for women.

“Although there have been improvements in some of the disciplines, women continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce,” said Shaily Menon, associate dean of GVSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Women constitute half of the total college-educated workforce in the U.S., but make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.”

The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields exists at GVSU also. For example, Gipson is one of four women who work in the physics department out of 30 total faculty members.

“Those that have a career in a STEM discipline face barriers such as gender stereotyping, gender bias, lack of flexibility and importantly a lack of female mentors,” said Martina Reinhold, AWIS representative for the College of Health Professions at GVSU.

From Sept. 13-14, AWIS-WM hosted their first official event, “Achieving Success Through Implementation of Effective Mentoring Strategies.”

“(The event) will be a professional opportunity and a chance to network,” Gipson said. This first event is only one of many things that the AWIS chapter hopes to initiate. The chapter also wants to reach out and improve the development of science in younger children, both women, men and non-binary, through a K-12 outreach program.

The creation of another science based resource is beneficial not only to younger children and college aged students, but also to working professionals such as Joy Washburn, a registered nurse and assistant professor at GVSU.

“For me, being part of a larger group that recognizes the contributions and importance that women have in the STEM professions provides me with a built-in support group,” she said.

The support provided by this new organization will ideally increase the amount of opportunities for women looking to pursue fields in science.

The new AWIS-WM chapter is actively accepting members. For more information, visit