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‘Project Runway’ episode is part of Dallas foundation’s $25M push to make 100 women scientists famous

by Anna Kuchment, Science writer | March 4, 2019

Lyda Hill Philanthropies is spending $25 million to promote the work of women scientists.

At a splashy kickoff at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Monday night, the Dallas foundation announced an initiative to dramatically boost the visibility of women scientists in society, including in schools, in museums and on television.

“Picture us as a talent agency for women in science,” said Nicole Small, president of Lyda Hill Philanthropies.

The If/Then initiative will recruit 100 women scientist “ambassadors” who will receive media training to share their stories with groups such as Girl Scouts of the USA and Teach For America, with museums and zoos, and on a new Saturday morning television show.

A special episode of Project Runway in April will feature women coders and developers.

“The idea of incorporating science into the show seemed like a great opportunity, albeit a little out of left field, at first,” said Project Runway co-executive producer Meri Haitkin. “At the end of the day, fashion really does rely a lot on [science and technology] skills.”

While women now earn as many bachelor degrees in science and engineering as men, they make up only 30 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to statistics from the National Science Foundation.

That underrepresentation sets off a vicious cycle, said Small. Without role models, young girls are less likely to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math — known collectively as STEM.

Nicole Small, president of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, poses for a photograph at her office in Dallas on Friday, March 1, 2019. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

“Visibility is everything,” said Miranda Hart, a biologist at the University of British Columbia who is not involved in the initiative. She has studied how men and women scientists are portrayed in the media. “There’s this huge cohort of young men who are ruling the world in terms of science and technology. They’re these cultural icons. Where are the women?”

Her own adolescent daughters will not pursue science, she said, because they don’t see women scientists as being part of anything exciting.

A study commissioned by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media last year found that male STEM characters in movies and TV outnumber female ones by 62.9 percent to 37.1 percent. That ratio has not improved in the last decade.

Small sees a similar imbalance in textbooks and on museum walls.

“There’s only so much we as parents — or even schools — can do,” she said.

Through the If/Then initiative, Small and her partners will look for women at all stages of their careers in a variety of professions, from engineers who design athletic shoes to Ph.D.s who study the geology of remote planets.

“We want to show them hundreds if not thousands of jobs that make them connect to things they’re passionate about,” she said.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the science policy organization that publishes the Science family of journals, will help select the 100 women.

To help disseminate the women’s stories, Lyda Hill Philanthropies will create a digital library of photos and videos about them that will be accessible to each partner, including Teach For America, which will use the material in classrooms. Each woman will also be offered training to tell her story, a professional headshot and her own website.

The training will give women scientists much-needed confidence, said Hart. Many turn down invitations to appear on panels and speak to the media because they feel they lack authority.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which represent science museums, zoos and aquariums, will also have database access and will be able to request additional funding to cover printing and display costs.

“No longer should a school teacher not have access to the photographs they need to put on their walls, no longer can a museum say, ‘Gosh, we don’t have a picture of a woman archaeologist,’” she said. “Every museum should have access to that material.”

Two original shows based on the 100 women are in the works. One is a Saturday morning program still in the early planning stages. Another is a YouTube show premiering next summer in partnership with the multimedia company GoldieBlox.

If/Then was also involved in an upcoming episode of the new season of Bravo’s Project Runway, hosted by supermodel and computer coding evangelist Karlie Kloss.

Producer Haitkin described the episode, which airs April 18, as a “videogame fashion challenge.” It will feature female video game developers and animators. “The contestants were asked to create a powerful video game character and her look,” she said.

Even before the program was announced, Small’s younger daughter seemed to reap the benefits.

Sitting in her office on the 46th floor of a Ross Avenue tower on Friday, Small recalled telling her girls, who both love soccer but aren’t clamoring for STEM careers, that the U.S. soccer team employs women data scientists who travel with the team and work with the players. Her 10-year-old’s eyes widened.

“That’s a job? I could do that one day?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Small. “You could travel with the U.S. women’s soccer team and use your math and science skills.”

“I had no idea,” her daughter replied. “That’s the coolest thing I ever heard of.”

And that was Small’s first, if unscientific, indication that her initiative might just work.

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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