Foreword by Carolina Vivas Valencia, INFORMS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee member
Throughout history and over the last years, women have played an essential role in addressing most of the world’s biggest and urgent challenges in engineering, health, economy, and climate change. Despite efforts to promote education and healthcare opportunities, women face countless obstacles to ensure gender equality. These obstacles hamper the ability of women to progress and develop their full potential. In recent decades there has been increasing scholarly attention to the participation of women in academia. Although in some areas, women are the majority of degree recipients, there is still a long way to achieve gender equality. A report published in 2019, showed that only 33% of women tenure/tenure-track faculty were classified as full professors compared with 51.4% of males. In the college of engineering among the US, only 17.4% of the faculty are women, and in areas such as life science-related disciplines, one in four tenure/tenure-track faculty are women . Therefore, for our first blog post, we have decided to invite an extraordinary woman to help us highlight the importance of female participation in OR/MS, who also provides advice on how we can promote and support women through their academic careers.
Dr. Laura Albert is a Professor and Harvey D. Spangler Faculty Scholar in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Women in OR/MS, by Dr. Laura Albert
I was delighted to be asked to write a blog post for the INFORMS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee blog.
I’ve been involved in DEI at INFORMS as long as I’ve been a member of INFORMS, which I joined as a graduate student. I am a long-time member of Women in OR/MS (WORMS), a former President of WORMS, a recipient of the 2019 Advancement of Women in OR/MS Award, and a former member of the INFORMS ad hoc Diversity committee.
Before getting involved with INFORMS communities as a graduate student, I struggled with imposter syndrome and did not feel I belonged in engineering or OR/MS. I was one of few women in my college courses, and I had one female professor during college. In graduate school, I was the only women in two of my courses. When I started a Ph.D. program, there was a single professor in a faculty of more than 50 professors in my department. When I thought about my future, I struggled to envision a path for me in the profession or in academia. Most of my interactions with peers and professors were positive, but there were a few notable exceptions that weighed on me and chipped away at my confidence.
The first INFORMS conference I attended happened to be the first time WORMS organized a formal lunch organized by then WORMS President (and current INFORMS President) Pinar Keskinocak. I was fortunate to attend this first WORMS lunch. The experience was wonderful, it was affirming, and it was life-altering. I felt welcomed to the discipline and felt that I had a seat at the table, literally and figuratively. That metaphor has stuck with me ever since. I knew I had to help create inclusive spaces like the WORMS lunch wherever I went so others would feel welcome to OR and analytics.
If we do not make inclusive spaces at conferences and in our communities, we have a lot to lose. Without inclusive spaces, we run the risk of losing people who have a lot to offer OR/MS. Without all that intellectual brainpower, and our discipline will not be able to make all the important contributions to the world that it could.
Over the years I learned two important lessons. First, I learned the importance of making structural changes at our universities and in our organizations. Second, I have learned to not underestimate the little things. Don’t get me wrong, we need big and bold initiatives—and I hope to see the INFORMS DEI Committee spearhead some of those initiatives—but no big initiative works unless there are people who are persistent, consistent, and relentless in making sure new initiatives and policies are implemented, have impact, and become part of how business gets done. I have enjoyed getting to know others in OR/MS who sweat the small stuff with me, and have seen our efforts help establish new practices and policies.
Being awarded the 2019 Advancement of Women in OR/MS Award means a lot to me, because it means that I have made some progress in making OR/MS more welcoming and inclusive. When I received this award, I requested that attendees do something small to advocate for women in OR/MS to help others feel welcome to the table. I want to repeat that request here. If you’re not sure what to do, I have some suggestions. You do not need to be a woman to do any of them.
- Nominate a woman for an award.
- Congratulate a woman for an award and publicize her achievement.
- Invite a woman to give a seminar in your department and ask her if she will meet with women students.
- Invite a woman to speak in your department seminar series.
- Nominate a woman for a professional society office.
- Nominate and appoint women to a journal editorial board.
- Take the time to talk to someone more junior about careers or graduate school in OR/MS and tell them about what you believe their potential for growth to be.
- Be outward facing to bring more women into the field. Serve as an expert to the media about your research so you can inspire others.
Laura A. Albert
Professor and Harvey D. Spangler Faculty Scholar
Industrial & Systems Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison
3218 Mechanical Engineering Building
 Roy, J. (2019). Engineering by the numbers. American Society for Engineering Education.