An Interview with Devon Sundberg, MS, BCBA, CEO of the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism (BACA) and the Women in Behavior Analysis (WIBA) Conference Director

Conducted by David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment

David: How did you come up with the idea for Women in Behavior Analysis?

An interview with Devon Sundberg, MS, BCBA

Devon Sundberg, MS, BCBA

Devon: A few years ago, I served as a co-chair alongside Dr. Kim Zoder-Martell for the annual conference of the Hoosier Association for Behavior Analysis (HABA). When it came time to select speakers, we asked for suggestions from colleagues. Although all of the recommended speakers were fabulous, the majority were men. We learned that this is a common observation in the field (e.g., McSweeney, 2005), and yet, there are so many prolific women in the field of behavior analysis who are doing impressive and intriguing work! After the HABA conference concluded, we continued to have discussions about the contributions of women in the field of behavior analysis. We talked about ways that we could celebrate the women in our field and highlight their accomplishments. As early career professionals, we talked about ways to support others who are in an early stage of their career and decided that one way to do this would be through hosting a conference.

David: Thank you so much for that background. What were your goals for the first conference? Were you successful?

Devon: I don’t think we ever formalized goals. We have our mission: “To empower, celebrate, and mentor women behavior analysts and highlight their contributions to the field. To engage both sexes in meaningful discourse on gender equality for the promotion of behavior analysis and professional growth of future generations.”

I believe we did accomplish our mission at our first conference held in Nashville this past March of 2017. We had two keynote presentations, four other invited presenters, 15 breakout sessions, a poster session, mentorship opportunities, and an expert panel. We received primarily positive feedback from our 275 attendees and 10 sponsors. We have also pinpointed areas for improvement for our 2018 conference.

David: Those are impressive accomplishments for a very first conference. What are your future plans?

Devon: Hosting this conference was an amazing experience. We took our time to review our feedback from the 2017 conference and have begun to plan for 2018. We hope to host this conference annually. The sky is the limit as to what goals we may be able to accomplish in the future, but for the time being we are focusing on making this effort sustainable and continuing to improve the conference. Our main goal is to engage more women of color and increase the presence of men at our event. We also heard loud and clear feedback that we need more presentations on the applications of behavior analysis to children with autism. Our vision statement includes:

  • Hosting an annual conference that features notable contributions of women in the field of applied behavior analysis, ensuring that women are respected as scientists and leaders.
  • Empowering early career behavior analysts through highlighting role models for those building their careers.
  • Inviting male speakers who support the effort of gender equality in the field of applied behavior analysis.
  • Remaining informed of the current literature regarding the equitable representation of women in the field of behavior analysis.

David: As an organization focused on best practices, we appreciate the heightened interest in autism treatment. Gender differences are certainly observed in the lives of families touched by autism. There is some research that shows that autism impacts work opportunities differentially for men and women with women working less outside the home and men perhaps working more. What is needed to address that divide?

Devon: Consistently promoting gender equality within all groups or communities would address this divide. I think a win for any minority group benefits other minority groups. If we are promoting gender equality in the US within our profession, this will empower other minority communities to expect and advocate for the same right. Promoting gender equality within our own field would strengthen the access to this right for all. This would be an excellent presentation for the next WIBA conference and remind our attendees that we also need to advocate for gender equality for those we serve. Further, we should ensure that fathers are just as engaged in the treatment process of our clients as mothers. And we should be cognizant of how ASD may affect females differently than males in our graduate programs, applied services, and applied research. Gender and gender stereotypes influence every aspect of life and hopefully this conference will train us to watch out for such pitfalls and pigeonholing.

David: As a member of this field for 25+ years, I have seen that the majority of new behavior analysts are women. This is in contrast to other areas of science where there are fewer women. How do you respond to those who question the need for a conference of this nature?

Devon: Our response to this question is multifaceted. Many existing professions have networking opportunities and associations to celebrate, support, and empower women (a similar mission to ours) such as:

  • American Business Women’s Association;
  • Association for Women Journalists;
  • Council of Professional Women in Banking and Finance; and
  • Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance

It’s clear that these groups thrive due to their utility. Although the field is primarily female, women behavior analysts still benefit from training, support, recognition, and mentorship in a conducive environment. Additionally, the promotion of gender equality benefits other professions and societies. Keeping that notion at the forefront of our profession will promote equitable decision making and prevent covert discrimination for both males and females.

David: Do you think that our field is doing a better job than other fields with respect to hiring, promoting, leadership opportunities, and equal pay?

Devon: I think it’s obvious that our field excels in hiring and promoting females. At our 2017 conference Melissa Nosik discussed, “Representation of Women in Behavior Analysis: An Empirical Investigation,” where she shared data on female representation in publications, association membership, and editorial appointments. The data demonstrated that we are approaching a female led field. Amy Odom presented on “Women in EAB: Representation in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.” She discussed women’s participation as authors, editorial board members, and editors. She shared that the representation of women in EAB is low relative to women’s participation in other areas of behavior analysis. WIBA hopes to promote more research like this to determine the direction of our field and pinpoint the areas that need strengthening to promote the sustainability of behavior analysis. Perhaps proper research would uncover gender gaps in pay or leadership opportunities.

David: Given the emphasis on science and technology within primary and secondary education today, it is wonderful that we are approaching gender equity within our own science-based discipline. Any advice for young women entering the field here in the US?

Devon: Seek out supervision and mentorship. I’m fortunate to have many mentors that I can reach out to (some male; some female), but they all have valuable experiences to share with me, especially in their areas of expertise. Also, whenever possible, work for an established agency to better access supervision. Our field is wrought with ethical dilemmas and day to day difficulties in practice. It’s too much for anyone to take on alone. Having the protection of an agency and their supervisors to handle the big problems can be invaluable and allow early professionals to focus on developing their clinical and professional skills. Clearly, the field of behavior analysis is predominantly female. We need to support these women through this paradigm shift and ensure that they are prepared to successfully navigate any discrimination based on their gender from others. Also, we need to protect our field from the pitfalls of being a predominantly female profession. A phenomenon of female led industries is that they may be prone to a gender pay gap (nursing, social work).

David: Any advice for women in behavior analysis residing in other countries, particularly those in which opportunities for women are more limited?

Devon: In these instances, I would suggest seeking out a female mentor. We are fortunate in the US that we’ve had leaders take on the fight for gender equality since the time of women’s suffrage (early 1900s). This isn’t the case in every country, so having a female mentor might protect and support women from other countries entering the field of behavior analysis.

David: Tell us about your plans for 2018.

Devon: We worked very hard on analyzing our attendee feedback and implementing it for the greatest attendee satisfaction. Our 2018 conference will be even more affordable, will feature inspiring leaders in our field, and allow for an open forum of discussion. Additionally, this conference is a fun and convenient opportunity to, not only be inspired by, but also get to work on, improving our applied and business skills by attending our Day 3 workshops; Sarah Trautman-Eslinger will be presenting a 3-hour workshop on “ABA Business Bootcamp.”

David: Thank you kindly for such a wonderful opportunity to learn more about your efforts.

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