The University Record, April 1, 2002

Self-study bears out belief that women in science and engineering up against many obstacles

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Members of the ADVANCE committee say preliminary results of a self study on gender equity in academic science and engineering show U-M women in those fields face more challenges than women in other disciplines, and significantly more career obstacles than men in science and engineering.

“Analyses based on a sample of 308 instructional track science and social sciences faculty revealed that women in science and engineering experienced the lowest satisfaction with their positions at the University, compared with the other two groups,” said Abigail Stewart, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Women scientists and engineers also reported a “chilly” institutional and departmental climate, and female assistant professors in those fields do not have adequate faculty mentors, the results revealed. Stewart also indicated that “women in science and engineering served on more committees than male scientists or female social scientists, but are seldom chosen for leadership roles.” Substantial numbers reported gender discrimination and unwanted and uninvited sexual attention, results that were at levels Stewart said were “surprising to us.”

Stewart’s report was part of a panel discussion March 25 featuring three women from the ADVANCE committee. Joining Stewart were Lisa Tedesco, vice president and secretary of the University, and Linda Katehi, former associate dean in the College of Engineering and current dean at Purdue University. Their discussion focused briefly on the U-M self-study and how it compared with similar research done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). U-M initiated the self-study in fall 2001, a few months after a special President’s Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering convened at MIT. Nine major universities met to discuss the issues facing women in science and engineering and to hear about MIT’s model program to address the problems. Participating universities endorsed a statement on equitable treatment of women in science and engineering, and all now are involved in their own self-studies, according to Stewart.

U-M’s study began before the National Science Foundation awarded it $3.7 million dollars for a five-year period to improve opportunities for tenure-track women in the field. “Our ‘modest’ goal is institutional transformation in five years,” Stewart told the audience of mostly women. She said the group will help individual units conduct further self-studies and will offer a variety of sessions, including workshops, focus groups and targeted consultations, to glean more information, while raising awareness.

After all of the research is complete, intervention will begin, Stewart said. It will take several forms, including:

  • Developing networks for women in science and engineering

  • Building a faculty advisory team for recruitment and hiring

  • Offering “good” practices workshops for leaders

  • Inviting people to participate in “Women Talking Science and Engineering,” a cross-disciplinary series of seminars that will explore gender issues and the overall climate for all members of the University

  • Performing “climate” classroom skits that use research findings to portray scenarios many young women deal with that often lead them to drop out of math, science and engineering

  • Encouraging women to take advantage of the Elizabeth Caroline Crosby Research Fund to support scholarly work with the intention of increasing “the participation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering.” The NSF ADVANCE grant will allow instructional track women faculty to request up to $20,000 for a project, out of $100,000 available annually.

    Tedesco said the climate for women will not be easy to change. “Changes will occur one decision at a time. It’s a question of persistence.”

    Katehi, who recently left U-M for a position at Purdue University in Indiana, said the issue is not specific to Michigan. “The problems are identical at Purdue.” She said what will make change easier for U-M is backing from the top levels of the University. “It makes a tremendous difference when there is support from higher administration.”