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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Ruta Sevo

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"Which kind of change agent are you going to be?"

Ruta Sevo is a long-time advocate for women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The WEPAN Knowledge Center caught up with her recently to learn more about the motivation behind all the work she does, her wish for a transformed society and her  WKC Agenda Paper on diversity in faculty searchesreleased by WEPAN in 2010. We found our conversation with her interesting and thought provoking and hope you will feel similarly.

- Liz Litzler and Bev Louie, January, 2011

We asked Ruta what she would do with two wishes to transform action related to women in STEM. She focused on the two things she believes are currently missing yet necessary for change: political will and resources.

Social change happens when people are aware of and feel urgency about an issue, and have an appreciation for the importance of the issue in their lives. For example, they see that their daughter's future is limited. It's a swinging point when this happens. Ruta wished for enough political will to make people aware of the problem, to shift the political tides that can lead to real transformative actions.

Her second wish, which is strongly related to the first, was for resources to make this change happen. For instance, NSF has been historically underfunded given how much work needs to be done. The NSF funding has helped to seed the field with great ideas, but extra resources are needed to enable researchers and practitioners to reach others through publishing, discussions and other dissemination avenues, and help implementing promising practices.

As she indicates, "You've got to be in the room, you've got to be talking to everyone including men, and you've got to sound like you are doing something they are interested in."

Development of an advocate:

Ruta's personal and professional lives impacted her current position as an advocate for women in STEM fields.

When she was in 8th grade, Ruta wanted to be either a nuclear physicist or a surgeon; these fields interested her because they worked on complex problems and because as a first generation immigrant, she wanted to work in a high paying career. Unfortunately, as is sometimes still the case today, she was actively discouraged from going into those fields. As a young woman she really wondered whether the brains of women and men were different and whether women were more limited and subordinate. It took decades for her to really believe and understand the truth.

Ruta finds it frustrating that there is a huge concern in the government about the shortage of talent in science and engineering, when it wouldn't be the case if so many women had not been actively discouraged, as she was, from going into those fields. She says, "What we've been doing is wrong. Girls do like math, science and engineering, but you've got to encourage it. Many still think that it's unusual and even unnatural for girls to pursue these subjects." Ruta suggests that Americans have a long way to go in accepting women in prominent leadership positions.

When one reflects on the recent presidential election, we can see that focus was on Hillary Clinton's or Sarah Palin's family or attire in addition to the political issues. She looks forward to the day when such sideline issues are a thing of the past. Evidence for movement in that direction includes the existence of prominent female policy and science leaders - e.g. Sally Ride and Rita Colwell - who are role models, combating negative stereotypes about women and the appropriate careers for them.

Ruta describes herself as on her "fifth career," giving hope to those of us who want to be able to explore our many interests.

The library systems field was blowing wide open in the 1970s. Women were "okay" in this field where anyone who could solve a problem could get a job and be paid well. Professionally, she was working at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in government information technology when she was selected for a temporary opening as a program officer focusing on women and girls. The job involved processing grants and working with the research community, a good change from information technology management. After one year in the temporary position they granted her a permanent position.

She was so inspired by meeting women her own age who were scientists and engineers and who had fought their way into those fields in the 1960s and 1970s, that she worked very hard to recruit and develop grantees of the program at NSF and after. Ruta says, "Suddenly I found myself in a world of women who had stayed in the field of advocacy mixed with research mixed with academics, and had survived, much to my surprise. I did everything I could to help them within the rules of NSF, to cultivate people and keep the money flowing into good hands. It was totally inspiring to suddenly find myself in that position."

In addition, Ruta says, "I was very careful never to use the word feminism or advocacy; I said 'this is about research.' In everything I write now I always position the goal as developing talent and creating equal opportunities. It's not about correcting for past wrongs for women, although that is behind my personal motivation and a lot of other peoples' motivation."

On women in leadership:

Based on Ruta's longtime advocacy and leadership as a program officer at NSF, it's surprising to learn that she is most comfortable out of the limelight in the role of a "first lieutenant."

However, Ruta found that she had the will and desire to take the reins when needed so that she could control her environment and lead the efforts to solve important problems or make changes that mattered. Deciding to take on leadership roles is a personal decision that many of us will encounter. Learning to enjoy and excel in leadership roles can take time and extra training.

Ruta observed that many women who enter the workforce after college have not had to deal with sexism or discrimination that may range from outright hostility to covert or ambiguous practices. She suggests that women read books on leadership and gender, and the experience of women in science and engineering, and participate in available training to bolster an awareness of and understand workplace dynamics and leadership practices. These sources can teach women how to react to various situations, use humor and make friends with adversaries.

It's also good for women to identify mentors, allies or peer groups with whom to have casual or offline discussions. "Everyone needs to build support networks, with which you can process what happens to you and think how to deal with it," Ruta notes.

Faculty Search Agenda Paper:

With Ruta's experience in library systems science, she is well suited to finding and condensing large amounts of material, basically "translating a lot of complexity into specific steps."

Her interests in management and strategic planning drove her to examine the multitude of papers written regarding how to improve faculty searches for diversity and create a practical, practice-oriented agenda paper for WEPAN that translates complex ideas into specific steps.

The Faculty Search Agenda Paper digests a large amount of published material, some of which is from the NSF ADVANCE portal, and relays the essence of the ideas. This type of paper is ideal for busy faculty and diversity officers - anyone who is initiating programs to improve recruitment of new faculty. Its unique approach combines a macro level tool with a strategic planning mentality, and it is derived from a variety of intellectual products based on the experience of people working with faculty members and higher education administrators trying to do this work.

Ruta believes the first step in creating change is to find a way to persuade people they would be better - more effective, better educators, and better professionals - if they became more aware of this problem.

She says "The first thing I would want them to do is to acknowledge and realize things they're doing that discourage students." Programs do exist that help colleges or departments recognize they are missing or losing students and provide remedies with low cost solutions. Examples of this are two NSF Gender in Science and Engineering Extension Services grants, ENGAGE and NCWIT, which are creating positive change. Based on the changes she's seen, Ruta believes that, indeed, one day WEPAN will be unnecessary since engineering education will attract, develop and promote the talent and success of all women.

A little bit about Ruta Sevo's history:

With advanced degrees in civilization studies and information science, Ruta brings a wealth of perspectives to her work focused on gender in science and engineering. Ruta began her career working as a programmer/analyst at the Library of Congress and continued to work in different capacities in the information science field. In 1998 she accepted a position as a program director in the National Science Foundation Division of Human Resource Development. Since "retiring" in 2006, Ruta has continued to work as a consultant on projects related to diversity in STEM, but she still finds time to be an artist and writer. You can learn more about what Ruta is up to these days at

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