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Twenty Years of the Women's Interchange at SLAC: What's in a Number?

WIS 20th Anniversary Celebration

WIS planners Cherrill Spencer and Barbara Hemstad prepare for the celebration. (Photo by Brad Plummer.)

SLAC Chief Finance Officer Linda Rakow presents the 20th anniversary WIS seminar, "From There to Here," discussing her personal history, education and career path, in Panofsky Auditorium. (Photo by Brad Pummer.)

Attendees enjoy chocolate cake—courtesy the Linear Café—and browse 20 years of WIS photos, flyers and more at the WIS 20th anniversary celebration in the Panofsky Breezeway. (Photo by Brad Plummer.)

WIS co-founder Janet Dixon (right) looks over the 20-year WIS photo album with recent co-planner Petra Wehle (center) and Kirk Stoddard, a regular WIS seminar attendee. (Photo by Cherrill Spencer.)

In the 20 years since its inception, the Women's Interchange at SLAC has organized 185 public seminars and tours; launched a series of eight Take Our Daughters (and later, sons) to Work Days that led to ten (and counting) annual Kids Days @ SLAC; and hosted 20 end-of-year potluck luncheons. These are just numbers, but they give a rough outline of the all-volunteer organization, which for two decades has promoted women's interests and provided a regular, open forum to learn about topics of interest to women and men alike.

"Statistics are interesting to me," said Cherrill Spencer, who leads the WIS planning group together with Barbara Hemstad. "They tell a story, and it's a story we should keep track of." At the WIS 20th anniversary celebration on Thursday, January 20, alongside albums showcasing 20 years of WIS event photos and flyers, the planners provided some numbers about the working environment at SLAC. They include salary statistics and percentages of women working in 23 job groupings at SLAC in 1991 and 2010. The numbers show some increase in the percentage of women in non-technical management and finance roles, and minimal change in other categories since 1991. Separate counts show an upward trend in the number of women in top management over the lab's history—zero in 1960, three in 1991 and five in 2010, including the lab director and CFO.

WIS is a volunteer-run employee activity group with no elected officers or dues, funded ad hoc by its organizers. Its planning group has unofficially served as a resource to lab management in women's issues over the years. A January 1993 survey, administered by SLAC Human Resources at WIS’s and a related parents group's behest, explored the potential number of staff who would use an on-site childcare center. The responses, from 593 SLAC employees, indicated as many as 120 children, from three months to five years old, would use on-site childcare, Spencer said. "We worked on this for about three years and it went all the way to the Department of Energy." Management took note, but determined that SLAC could not budget in a child care center, according to the August 1995 Interaction Point. Today, Stanford has several day care options open to SLAC employees, as well as staff grants for day care. "I like to think it was people like us who helped persuade the university," Spencer said.

In the mid-1990's, SLAC needed to meet a DOE requirement to have a women's group or official effort to engage more women scientists, according to Janet Dixon, who co-founded WIS in January 1991 together with Valerie Phillips, her fellow manager in what was then the Business Services Division. WIS was already there, ahead of the curve.

But women's issues have been only one part of the WIS focus. The monthly seminars and other activities, although they focus on topics of interest to women, are intended for everyone. "Some men come more regularly than the women," Spencer said.

"[It's] a great example of providing educational sessions for education's sake," Dixon said. "The goal was to provide a horizontal forum within which all could learn about anything."

After 20 years, WIS planners have a pretty good idea what topics will draw an audience. The most popular seminars focus on issues in health and finances, according to Spencer. Many topics are chosen for their value in raising the visibility of women and their career paths. During the early years, the WIS organizers would take notes and publish synopses of the talks in The SLAC Beamline. (For example, see "Profiling Women on the Linac" The Beamline, April 1992, page 8.) Later, they began keeping video. Currently, WIS seminars are recorded to DVD and kept in the SLAC Library.

To share the learning spirit with the next generation, WIS in 1994 held the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The event evolved over the years to include sons and daughters both. Over time, the Human Resources Department (and later, Communications Office) took the event on, and continued it as Kids Day @ SLAC, open to any child sponsored by a SLAC employee.

"Life is not gender based," Dixon wrote. "It is all about learning and being who you are."

—Shawne Workman
SLAC Today, February 1, 2011