The University Record, September 11, 1995

Sloan grant aims to improve recruitment, retention of grad women

By Sally Pobojewski

The University of Michigan has received a $473,500 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to establish a program to improve recruitment and retention of women graduate students in engineering and the physical sciences. It will be one of the first programs in the country designed to meet the special needs of women pursuing advanced degrees in technology and science.

A collaborative effort of three U-M units—College of Engineering; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; and Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies—the new initiative will be the most far-reaching and comprehensive program designed specifically for women at the U-M, says Cinda-Sue Davis, director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program at the Center for the Education of Women. “The success of this initiative will not only make a profound difference in the climate and culture of the campus, it will also serve as a model program for other research universities.”

“I am personally committed to programs like this that will improve the educational climate and opportunities for women at Michigan,” says President James J. Duderstadt. “Outdated attitudes toward women hamper our ability to excel individually and as an institution. We can no longer afford the waste of human talent and potential that results from our current system.”

Succeeding in graduate school is not easy under the best of circumstances, but women graduate students in engineering and the physical sciences face additional obstacles, according to Stephanie A. Caswell, graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.

“Because there are so few women in engineering—either on the faculty or as graduate students—we lack role models,” Caswell says. “There’s no one to talk to about how to make being an engineer and being a woman fit together. We are treated differently by the faculty and especially by male graduate students. It can be a very isolating experience. After a while you ask yourself, ‘Do I belong here?’ ”

Evidence of the need for a program to encourage women to pursue advanced degrees in physical science and engineering becomes obvious when you look at the numbers, according to George R. Carignan, associate dean for graduate education and research in the College of Engineering.

“The phenomenon of ‘the higher, the fewer’ is very evident within engineering and physical science departments,” Carignan notes. “During the fall 1994 semester, only 5 percent of the faculty and 11 percent of doctoral students in engineering were female. In physics and applied physics, 21 percent of graduate students and 3 percent of the faculty were women. In chemistry, 33 percent of graduate students and 6 percent of the faculty were female. From 1986 to 1990, the physics department awarded 20 percent of its doctoral degrees to women; chemistry, 16 percent; and engineering, just 5 percent.

“At the College of Engineering, we are determined to increase the number of women in our graduate programs,” Carignan adds. “Our goal is to have 500 women graduate students by the fall of 1997—a substantial increase from the 260 women who are currently enrolled. We will make a special effort to reach out to women of color. Since minority women carry a double burden of racial as well as gender inequity, we must be sure they play a major role in designing, implementing and benefitting from the graduate women’s program.”

Components of the new program, which will begin to be implemented this term, include:

  • Increasing the research knowledge base. Information from surveys of faculty and graduate students, focus groups, admissions records and academic transcripts will be collected and recorded in one centralized database. “Our goal is to learn more about current women students, where they come from and the success of their U-M graduate experience,” Carignan says. “The database will help us document results and measure the effectiveness of the program.”

  • Programmatic interventions. New programs and materials designed especially for women will be developed and implemented. These include recruiting materials and procedures, an extensive fall orientation for new students, development of a peer mentoring system for women graduate students and creation of a Society of Women Engineers graduate group.

  • Systemic institutional change. “Surveys of women students at many universities, including the U-M, indicate a widespread problem with institutional climate and attitudes toward women, particularly in engineering and the physical sciences,” says Davis. “But many male faculty members either do not understand how women feel or do not believe there is a problem.”

    To increase awareness and facilitate change, Davis will conduct a series of workshops for engineering and physical science faculty. The program will produce a series of trigger videotapes on climate issues, develop “female friendly” recruiting and teaching strategies and give recognition awards to supportive faculty mentors.

  • Evaluation and national dissemination. Each component of the new graduate women’s program will be evaluated and student progress will be monitored. Project results will be compiled and distributed to universities around the country.

    Individual departments will be encouraged to set specific goals for increased enrollment, retention and graduation of women students, according to Carignan.

    Davis says the new graduate women’s program will incorporate suggestions from students on how best to address and correct the roadblocks and obstacles that discourage women, especially minority students, from pursuing and completing advanced degrees.

    In LS&A, the new graduate women’s program will be directed by Joseph P. Marino, associate dean for research computing and facilities. In the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the new initiative will be directed by Warren C. Whatley, associate dean for graduate recruitment and support.