Empowered to Succeed: Community for Women of Color in OR/MS

By Karen Hicklin, Julie Ivy, and Maria Mayorga

Through the INFORMS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Ambassadors Program, we have begun to build a community for women of color in operations research and management science (OR/MS), which currently includes a mixture of graduate students and early and mid-career women in both academic and industry positions from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Black, Hispanic, and Asian women. The goal of the community is to provide a safe space , defined as a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations, for scholars across the academic spectrum, from graduate students to university presidents. Safe spaces are not only physical places but are also opportunities for people of similar thought and interests to share those thoughts and feelings in a comfortable environment [1].  This community provides that space for women in OR/MS who often find themselves in places where they make up very small percentages of their institution.


According to the American Society of Engineering Education, there were 1,165 tenured/tenure track faculty in industrial engineering in 2018, 20.3% were women [2]. African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans accounted for 2.7%, 6.4%, and 30.6% of industrial engineering faculty [2], respectively. As one may guess, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American women make up an even smaller percentage of industrial engineering faculty. Despite low representation, women of color have found ways to excel–but at what costs?


There are many issues that women of color experience in academia that differ from other groups. These include an increased likelihood to experience feelings of imposter syndrome, isolation, and unfair judgment. Other issues that impact women of color are issues with handling microaggressions, being in unsafe and uncomfortable spaces, and managing unconscious bias. We developed this community to help women of color feel empowered to navigate these issues and spaces.


We hosted our first event virtually in late October 2020, the goal of which was to build community virtually among the participants. In preparation for the event, each participant prepared a 4x4 slide introducing themselves, their research interests, current challenges, an empowerment song, and an area for growth for the year. They also included pictures that represent parts of their identity that are important to them. We kicked off this three-hour event with “lightning talk” style introductions using the prepared slide a with discussion about how our identities contribute to our careers. 

Purple Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Carrot Top PestoWe then participated in an interactive cooking demonstration led by Chef Alejandra Schrader (https://alejandraschrader.com/) with individuals participating from their own kitchens! [See Purple Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Carrot Top Pesto below] Chef Schrader was also able to share her own empowerment story. Lastly, while we enjoyed our meals, we listened to the closing session by STEM Resilience Coach Dr. Christine Grant. The event provided an opportunity for women to share pieces of their identities in a safe and encouraging space.

One of the participants said, “Thank you for organizing this and inviting me. My family and I really enjoyed the food that came out of this event and having these conversations brought up some needed reflection on my side. It was a bit chaotic in my house, but it is nice to have programs that integrate with our “life workflow” and not have to separate time to be able to participate. My family enjoyed the food while I was listening to the presentation. I even made a second batch to freeze after we disconnected, and it was so much easier (that just shows the importance of preparation).”


We are looking forward to our next event!


 [1]  M. Yee, “Why ‘Safe Spaces’ Are Important for Mental Health — Especially in College.” https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/safe-spaces-college#1 (accessed Dec. 18, 2020).

[2]  J. Roy, “Engineering by the Numbers: 2017-2018,” 2019, [Online]. Available: www.asee.org/colleges.