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Change needed for women on science and engineering faculty

A climate study about women science and engineering faculty members on campus has found a sometimes chilly and negative working environment, a lack of leadership roles and mentoring, and the need for greater recruitment and retention.

Abigail Stewart and Mary Sue Coleman prepare to speak at an event announcing the results of a study about women in science and engineering. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Results of the study, part of a $3.7 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), were announced Thursday at an event attended by about 280 people. The University is one of only a handful of research universities to announce publicly the results of such a study, which relied on quantitative and qualitative data collected from female scientists and engineers, male faculty in the same fields and female social scientists.

Women scientists and engineers reported higher rates of unwanted sexual attention and gender discrimination than their male counterparts, as well as other factors that contributed to a climate that was more negative than what was reported by men.

˝We need to do something about this,ţ said Abigail Stewart, director of the project, a professor of psychology and women═s studies, and associate dean for Academic Affairs in LS&A. Of the 41 percent of women reporting gender discrimination and the 20 percent reporting unwanted advances, she said, ˝these were very disturbingly high rates.ţ

Medical School Dean Allen Lichter noted that a woman has never been a department chair in the Medical School. Now, he said, the school is actively searching for several.

˝If we can═t begin to bring women into senior leadership positions now, we═re doing something wrong,ţ he said. ˝I═m putting myself on the line; we are going to change this record.ţ

In the study, women respondents rated their departments more negatively than male respondents in many categories. ˝Faculty meetings were typical of the treatment of women from all walks of life,ţ a respondent reported. ˝I would say something and no one would listen. Another (man) would speak up with exactly the same thing I had said and everyone would say, ´What a great idea.═ţ

Other findings include:

  • Female assistant professors in science and engineering received substantially less mentoring than other groups.
  • While women had a higher rate of service on formal committees than men, they did not chair the committees at a higher rate.
  • Women in these fields received fewer items in their renegotiated contracts than their male counterparts.

Unlike similar studies at other universities, this is a baseline study that will be used to measure advances in the future. The University should use the study as a basis for improving the climate for women scientists and engineers on the faculty, and for bringing in more female faculty members in those fields, speakers said at the event.

˝Unfortunately a welcoming environment remains rare,ţ President Mary Sue Coleman said. ˝This is a problem that we must solve. ... I have no doubt that we will make giant strides in our unfinished journey at Michigan.ţ

The ADVANCE program awarded nine institutional transformation grants to ensure fuller participation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering, including the grant U-M received in fall 2001.

At U-M and nationally, the number of women on the tenure track in science and engineering has lagged far behind gains made by women in non-science fields. According to the NSF, women earn 40 percent of all doctorates in the United States, but they make up 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce in general and less than 20 percent of the science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities.

Last spring, members of the ADVANCE committee said preliminary results showed that U-M women in these fields face more challenges than women in other disciplines and significantly more career obstacles than men in science and engineering.

Recommendations in the study include increasing critical mass of women on the science and engineering faculty by recruiting and retaining more of them; ensuring that family-friendly policies are widely known and improved where needed; increasing mentoring through formal and informal programs; and ensuring that departments and colleges have clear and transparent policies and procedures for minimizing negative experiences.

Stewart is optimistic that the University will make some necessary changes as a result of the study. ˝I certainly think it═s going to be a great next five years,ţ she said. The full report is at

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