Feds tap Rice to expand ranks of women in science and engineering

University looks to transform culture, policies, practices and perceptions

HOUSTON, Oct. 19, 2006 -- The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Rice University a $3.3 million, five-year ADVANCE grant for programs that aim to increase the opportunities for hiring and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering nationwide.

Rice will use the money, awarded under ADVANCE's Institutional Transformation program, to develop a broad range of strategies for recruiting and enhancing the pool of women for junior faculty positions in science and engineering. The first, an Oct. 22-24 workshop titled "Negotiating the Ideal Faculty Position: A Workshop for Women in Science and Engineering," is designed to teach senior women graduate students and post-doctoral fellows how to go about finding and securing a faculty position that's a good match for their career interests. More than 700 women applied for the 46 positions available in the workshop.

As part of its ADVANCE program, Rice also plans to examine administrative processes and encourage cultural changes to foster a more welcoming, encouraging environment for female scholars in science and engineering and to remove artificial barriers to success.

Nationally, about one-quarter of the science and engineering workforce is female, but fewer than one-fifth of all science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities are women. That number drops below 10 percent in some disciplines, such as math and physics. The figures are much poorer for women of color; minority women account for only about 2 percent of science and engineering faculty.

Numerous attitude surveys at university campuses across the country find the same result: women are consistently less satisfied with their jobs than their male counterparts and the reasons are similar from survey to survey isolation, overwork and too little appreciation.

"Rice has an extraordinary opportunity to impact gender and ethnic diversity over the coming decade because of faculty retirements," said Rice President David W. Leebron. "More than one-third of our faculty in science and engineering will reach normal retirement age during that time. Rice is not content to be a follower on this issue; we are already leading the nation in appointing women to positions of leadership within science and engineering, and we intend to lead by example in recruiting, retaining and nurturing junior faculty women and men."

Rice's record on gender equity in science and engineering, like other research universities', is mixed. Rice is the only top-tier university in the nation with female deans in both science and engineering, and it is above the national average in the percentage of women at the rank of full professor. However, at the time it applied for ADVANCE funding, Rice scored below the national average in the ranks of women assistant and associate professors in science and engineering. While recent recruiting has boosted the number of women in several departments, and while the university far exceeds the national average for female faculty in disciplines including bioengineering, mechanical engineering and life sciences, some of Rice's departments lack women faculty and none have women of color.

Program leaders at Rice say they hope to meet the challenges of increasing the percentage of women faculty to better reflect the national pool of women earning doctoral degrees in science and engineering by studying and implementing ways to enhance pools of qualified candidates and by examining policies, practices and perceptions that may cause women to avoid careers in science and engineering. If achieved, this goal will result in effectively doubling to tripling the current national averages for the percentage of women faculty in most Rice departments.

"Recruiting more women who are qualified provides only part of the answer," said Kathleen Matthews, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences and a principal investigator on the grant. "We also need to address the subtle biases or stereotypes women face in academia. Sometimes it can just be the way things are phrased. For example, research has shown that if you're searching for faculty candidates, and you call a professor and ask them to recommend someone from their group, they'll tend to mention the men first. It's unconscious and both men and women do it, but research also shows that you can balance that bias by simply asking if they have any promising women in their group."

Matthews said there are many examples of these subtle biases. Unlike conscious acts of discrimination, these have almost negligible effect when looked at by themselves. But though small, the cumulative consequences from each act are negative, so the effects add up over time, and the overall impact can be pernicious and discouraging.

"For decades, we've addressed these issues by placing the onus on women, asking them to behave differently in order to fit into academic culture," said fellow principal investigator Sallie Keller-McNulty, dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering. "Today, we've realized what we really need to do is focus on changing the culture."

Matthews said one way Rice hopes to improve its climate is by calling attention to as many of these unconscious stereotypes and biases as possible in a series of ongoing workshops and lectures. These will target all segments of the campus from senior faculty to graduate and undergraduate students.

"We don't want to advantage women over men," said Keller-McNulty. "We want to remove the disadvantages faced by women, and in doing so we will raise everyone's awareness and improve the climate for both men and women and the quality of research and teaching for all."

Co-principal investigators include Bioengineering Department Chair Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor in Bioengineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering; Chemistry Department Chair Ken Whitmire, professor of chemistry; and Mikki Hebl, associate professor of psychology and management.

Hebl, an expert in studying the interactions between stigmatized and non-stigmatized individuals, will play a key role in assessing the effectiveness of each program element.

"In many ways, Rice is the perfect place because of its small size and its interdisciplinary, cooperative culture to rapidly and rigorously test new approaches for the advancement of women and to get the word out about what works and what doesn't," Matthews said.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.