Mizzou grant program works for female faculty in the sciences

Monday, November 19, 2007 | 8:31 p.m. CST; updated 4:32 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Science departments are known for being male-dominated , but a three-year grant program aims to level the playing field at MU.

Last year the National Science Foundation gave $499,000 to a group of female faculty members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, to create programs that would increase the number of women in those fields. The Mizzou ADVANCE grant program started this January and will run through December 2009.

MU Institutional Research statistics indicated that in 2006, 16 percent of tenure and tenure-track faculty in the STEM fields were women. That’s only a 1.5 percent increase since 1996.

Mizzou ADVANCE is composed of programs for research and mentoring, along with a climate theater program that will fund the creation of interactive presentations. Another program, Strategies and Tactics for Retention to Improve Diversity and Excellence, or STRIDE, educates others about women’s advancement and employment. The STRIDE and climate theater programs are modeled after those in the ADVANCE program at the University of Michigan.

Jackie Litt, chair of the MU department of Women’s and Gender Studies and principal investigator for Mizzou ADVANCE, attributed the gender equality problem to “traditional associations of men with science that starts early on in grade school.”

Litt also cited the lack of women role models for students and their isolation among faculty.

“Research also shows that men and women hold unconscious mental processes that undervalue the contributions of women, making career advancement more difficult,” she said. “The 80-hour week of a person in these fields doesn’t help anyone, women or men, who is looking for a balance between life and work.”

Last month, several higher education leaders testified to Congress about the low number of women in STEM-tenured faculty positions. They proposed an NCAA-style organization that would monitor academic departments and hold them accountable for complying with federal laws banning gender discrimination.

Universities are dealing not only with the hiring of more women in STEM fields but also with how to retain them. Karen Cone, MU biology professor and STRIDE committee member, said studies show that fewer women than men are hired in the STEM fields at MU. What’s more, women leave the university at the same rate as men, meaning the number of women faculty remains small. Failure to retain faculty is also expensive, as the university loses its initial start-up investment.

MU Provost Brian Foster said he supports Mizzou ADVANCE and wants to expand some of its programs to the university level.

“The program is focused on getting women into leadership positions in the science fields, and I think it’s a really important thing,” said Foster. “I especially like the mentoring program in particular, and I think we need to generalize it and use it across the university.”

Chemistry professor Sheryl Tucker, mentor programming chair for MizzouADVANCE, said one of the most beneficial things female faculty members can do is to find a mentor.

“Having a group of people in your corner is the best thing you can have in your career,” said Tucker. “Building networks and reducing social isolation is one of our goals.”

Although many women pursue doctoral degrees in STEM fields, many do not become professors. A study in 2003 by the National Science Foundation shows that more than 50 percent of doctoral students in the life sciences were women, but only 34 percent of assistant professors in the field were women.

“Female students have to be able to see themselves in the field,” Litt said. “There is a major lack of role models.”

The Mizzou ADVANCE mentoring program is open to both men and women and currently pairs 19 female faculty members with senior STEM faculty mentors. They meet monthly and discuss career plans, situations within departments and leadership development strategies. Twelve of the senior STEM faculty mentors are male.

Sophomore biology major Allie Scott said she has considered becoming a professor and has been concerned about the lack of female professors in the field.

“There is a lot of bias towards men, but that’s something that makes me more motivated to break the mold,” said Scott. “Many of my peers are women, and I see the future getting brighter for women in the sciences.”

Missouri was recently chosen as one of five states to begin a project to encourage young women to prepare for careers in the STEM fields. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will partner with the Missouri Center for Career Education at the University of Central Missouri to provide resources and train school and community leaders.

Even when women become professors, advancing from assistant and associate professors to full professors is difficult. In 2004, only 14 of the 49 STEM female faculty members at MU were full professors.

Cone said a major goal of the STRIDE committee is to educate faculty and administrators about unconscious biases against women in hiring and advancement. STRIDE will meet with Chancellor Brady Deaton on Nov. 26 and will make a presentation early next semester to a group of STEM department chairs and other administrators.

The grant gives Mizzou ADVANCE about two more years to enact its programs and collect research data. Next year, Mizzou ADVANCE will begin its climate theater program. At faculty meetings and chair councils, the MU theater department will present common scenarios encountered by female professors to start discussion about STEM faculty issues.

“If we continue to exclude most women, who are half of the potential science workforce in the U.S., we lose opportunities to advance science and technology in the world and to recruit talented scientists,” Litt said. “Missouri can be a leader in STEM if we enhance the recruitment, retention and opportunities for girls and women.”

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