The list of widely known scientists is dominated by men, but a University program is working to break this mold.
The ADVANCE program seeks to increase the number of female science and engineering professors at the University, and as the five-year program passes its halfway point, some women faculty are saying it is accomplishing its mission.
Hiring of female professors in science and engineering has increased significantly since 2001, according to leaders of the project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. In 2001, only 20 percent of professors hired by the University were women, while this year that figure has risen to 40 percent.
As a result, the female-to-male ratio of professors in science and engineering, an area historically dominated by men, is increasing.
Industrial and operations engineering Prof. Amy Cohn said the ADVANCE program has made a tangible difference for her, adding that in her first three years at the University have “largely been phenomenal.”
Through ADVANCE, Cohn received the Elizabeth C. Crosby Award, a grant that helped her hire graduate and undergraduate research assistants who help her efficiently complete her last research project. Cohn’s project involved ensuring that high-priority packages reach their destinations faster and more efficiently.
Cohn added that she was also able to include her assistants — all of them female — in a conference held by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, giving them valuable experience in the world of academia.
However, Cohn stressed that her experience is not representative of the experience of women faculty members as a whole. “The problem is not solved.,” she said.
An ADVANCE report published this year also warned that because the 2002-03 academic year was the first full year affected by ADVANCE, “it is too soon to draw conclusions about ADVANCE project efforts to recruit and retain women scientists from these numbers.” But by actively recruiting young female professors in the sciences, ADVANCE also hopes to put more women in positions of power in the science departments.
“You’re not going to have women deans if you don’t have more tenured faculty,” said Cohn. “You’re not going to have women tenured faculty without increasing numbers in junior faculty.”
While programs that award money can sometimes spark resentment, Cohn said she hopes that ADVANCE instead fosters open discussion.
ADVANCE reported that a survey conducted prior to the program’s start indicated that women in the “hard sciences” felt the departmental climate was “colder and less positive” than either their male colleagues or females in other departments such as the humanities and social sciences.
Computer science Prof. Martha Pollack said bringing women faculty together and having open conversation is key to improving an unfriendly work environment and feelings of isolation.
Pollack is a member of Science and Technology Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence, a committee that advises departments on ways to identify qualified women and minorities for faculty positions. She explained that ADVANCE attacks the problem of changing institutional climate “by raising awareness and bringing in new women faculty.”
“That in itself will make a huge difference,” she added.
Abigail Stewart, a professor of psychology and women’s studies and a principle investigator in the ADVANCE project, said, “The most important resource is of course the science and engineering faculty themselves — men and women — who have worked hard to understand how to make improvements in this area.”
ADVANCE is trying to ameliorate the difficulties faced by male and female faculty members as they attempt to balance their professional duties with raising children.
Cohn, a mother of two, pointed out the difficulty in not being able to attend meetings with her male colleagues after 5 p.m. because she is obligated to pick up her children from daycare.
ADVANCE hopes to improve University policies that give modified duties to faculty who must care for infants and to make it easier for women professors with children to get tenure. Also, ADVANCE aims to provide on-site childcare.
Engineering junior Stephanie Ritok said the gender of her professors makes little difference to her. “There’s still the same amount of knowledge. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re male or female,” she said.
While the improvements in female hiring since 2001 are significant, the difference between today and 20 years ago is greater. Engineering junior Evan Quasney said his mother, a member of the University’s class of 1978, was part of the extreme minority of female students in the civil engineering department. “There were no female professors at all that she knew of,” he said.