The University Record, October 15, 2001

$3.7 million grant aids women in science and engineering

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

The University has received a five-year, $3.7 million award from the National Science Foundation to improve opportunities for tenure-track women faculty in science and engineering fields.

Both nationally and at the U-M, the increase in the number of women faculty in the past 10 years has been slow, far slower than the change in the proportion of women faculty in non-science fields. Project Director Abigail J. Stewart noted that according to University Human Resource Development data, the overall proportion of women on the U-M faculty in natural science departments in LS&A was 6 percent 10 years ago and is only 9 percent today; for the College of Engineering, the numbers are 5 percent and 11 percent.

“The proportion of women in the highest faculty rank, full professor, is also disappointingly low,” Stewart said. Although the pattern varies from department to department, the overall figures suggest that not enough women scientists are succeeding or thriving on the tenure track.

“Many smart, motivated women have cited isolation and marginalization as reasons for moving out of science and engineering at major research institutions,” said Stewart. “Universities have recognized that we have to improve the campus environment for women faculty in these fields if we’re going to attract and retain the brightest and best for our respective institutions.”

Stewart directs the University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). Project co-directors include associate provost Pamela A. Raymond and the deans of three colleges—Shirley C. Neuman, LS&A; Stephen W. Director, Engineering; and Allen S. Lichter, Medicine. The committee that planned the grant proposal was chaired by President Lee C. Bollinger and included former Provost Nancy Cantor; Lisa A. Tedesco, vice president and secretary of the University and interim provost; and Linda P.B. Katehi, associate dean of engineering.

“It is past the time for this issue to be addressed at the institutional level. We cannot afford for this to remain an ‘intractable problem.’ Furthermore, it is clear to me that it is quite possible for Michigan to take a national leadership role in addressing this problem,” Bollinger said.

Stewart said the Michigan effort will begin with a baseline climate survey of scientists on campus, along with a space, equipment and resource inventory. “Our purpose is to assess the climate and distribution of resources,” she said. “Based on these analyses, we will launch a three-part program, and at the end of the period we’ll do a follow-up survey to assess our progress.”

The first phase of the Michigan program will be a campus climate initiative, that will create or identify activities such as workshops, consultation and focus groups, and make them available to any interested department or college throughout the University. The second phase will provide new types of direct support to individual scientists. Finally, a departmental transformation initiative will develop a sequenced program to be awarded to a small number of departments on a competitive basis. Funding from the National Science Foundation will begin next January, and activities associated with this five-year program will be announced over the next year.

“This sustained, committed intervention will include an internal review or self-study, goal-setting, and a series of targeted activities addressing recruitment, retention, and/or climate issues. The expectation is that these individual departmental transformations also will provide models for change across the campus,” Stewart said.

“The Michigan project deliberately encompasses a range of activities, from short-term activities like focus groups and data-based presentations to interventions that require serious, sustained efforts and funding,” Raymond explained. “The goal is to encourage both entire departments and individual scientists on campus to take full advantage of all the resources that will be available through this initiative.”

Planning for the Michigan effort began last January when a university delegation, headed by Bollinger, attended a meeting at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At that meeting, nine major research institutions--the U-M, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, Cal Tech, and the University of Pennsylvania--collectively acknowledged barriers to the advancement of women faculty in the sciences and engineering and pledged to find solutions that would address system-level problems.

The grant was awarded as part of the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE Program, established to increase participation of women in the science and engineering work force through the increased representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.