Brown University advancing women in science, engineering

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- After boosting the ranks of women scientists, Brown University will work to ensure that they go on to have productive careers and leadership opportunities through a major grant awarded by the National Science Foundation.

Brown will receive $3.3 million over five years under the foundation's ADVANCE program, which aims to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.

Brown's program will feature new staff and new initiatives, such as an administrative shadowing program. But a central goal is to ensure that existing resources, from money to mentoring, are made accessible to women so that they have equal opportunity to succeed.

"Women need the same things that men need to be superstars in science," said Pamela O'Neil, associate provost for policy and planning at Brown and principal investigator for the ADVANCE project. "They need grant funding and adequate lab space and equipment. They need a mentor and a strong professional network. But access to some of these resources is often available informally. We want to formalize processes and make them more transparent something that will benefit every faculty member."

Under the leadership of President Ruth J. Simmons, Brown has made enhancing excellence through diversity a major focus. Simmons has established an Office for Institutional Diversity and created a permanent funding pool to bring outstanding senior faculty to campus outside of the regular search process. A major aspect of this fund is recruitment of women and minorities.

As a result, Brown has made significant gains in hiring women; their numbers have increased 24 percent in the last five years. Gains in the physical sciences are most dramatic. Last academic year, Brown had 15 women teaching and conducting research in applied mathematics, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geological sciences, mathematics and physics. This year, Brown has 23 a 53 percent increase in a single year.

"This was achieved through focus," said Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity at Brown and a co-investigator of the ADVANCE program. "We had a clear mandate from the top to increase the numbers of women faculty in the physical sciences. We had the resources to recruit. We had willing and creative department chairs. ADVANCE will bring this same focus to bringing women into all of the science and engineering ranks. With its focus on retention and career advancement, it will complement the recruitment work underway."

Boosting the number of women faculty in science and engineering, and making sure they stay on and succeed, is a national problem. Women earn half of all bachelor's degrees and 37 percent of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering, yet they make up less than 20 percent of the science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities, according to the National Science Foundation.

Once on campus, and with few female colleagues, women can feel isolated or even ostracized. Some may struggle to balance the dueling demands of career and family. Campus culture may be a barrier if it is not clear how promotion decisions are made and how money and space are doled out in individual departments and by the university administration.

"Just because women arrive doesn't mean they thrive," O'Neil said. "This isn't typically a result of outright bias. It's because women may not know how the system works. Or they simply don't ask for what they want, whether it's more lab space or an introduction to a senior scientist. They don't want to ask for 'special' favors. They want to be seen as succeeding on their merits."

The ADVANCE program is open to men as well as women and should benefit both. For example, O'Neil said that making the path to success clearer will help all junior faculty. Under ADVANCE, the University will create a leadership program for department chairs aimed at improving climate, making department policies fair and transparent, and providing chairs with tools to help them mentor junior faculty within their departments. Assistant professors, both women and men, will also be eligible to apply for a new mentoring program that connects them with a senior faculty member outside their department who can act as sounding board and advisor.

Two new faculty development experts will be also be hired. One will mainly help faculty identify funding and sponsorship opportunities and create collaborative research opportunities. Another's central task will be to help faculty find daycare and babysitting services and create a database of potential employers to help "trailing" spouses find jobs. These services will be available to all Brown professors, regardless of gender or rank.

Some initiatives are designed to boost leadership potential, particularly for women. The Brown ADVANCE team will establish career development awards that create peer networks that benefit women networks which may lead to a major grant, a position on a journal editorial board or other career-boosting moves. Faculty could use the awards to bring in speakers who are leaders in their fields or allow faculty members to travel to scientific meetings. Women interested in pursuing an administrative career could also take time off from teaching to shadow a high-level administrator or work together with an administrator on a special project.

Alice Hogan, director of the ADVANCE program at the National Science Foundation, said 32 colleges and universities across the country are implementing similar institution-wide approaches, some at different scales, to recruiting and advancing women faculty. Sharing successful strategies is a critical element of ADVANCE.

"There are faculty development programs, department chair workshops, mentoring models, guides to effective recruitment and retention, climate surveys all ready-made for any college or university to use," Hogan said. "This infrastructure will save time and money in the long run, as institutions can adapt models to their own local conditions. That's why I think of the program as an investment fund. The United States has successfully educated greater and greater numbers of women scientists and engineers to the Ph.D. level, and they represent a fabulous brain trust. We need to focus on ways to maximize the return on that investment."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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