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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 23, 2007

Creating change with ADVANCE

by Samantha Beres

It may be stating the obvious: women faculty are underrepresented in science and engineering departments. It's not only a problem at Iowa State, but nationwide - the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that women comprise less than 21 percent of science and engineering faculty at four-year colleges and universities.

ISU ADVANCE, a program supported by a $3.3 million NSF grant, will address the issue over the next five years. One of the program's main initiatives, which takes an in-depth look at several departments, started this month. It will involve nine departments, three each from the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences.

But first, what do we already know?

Significant numbers of women are studying science and engineering in higher education, so it's not so much a pipeline problem.

"Women aren't represented in the proportions you would expect based on what we know about their level of interest in science, and their ability to do excellent science," said Bonnie Bowen, director of ISU ADVANCE.

Bowen pointed to high resignation rates of women once they enter the academic workforce. Across the 30 ISU STEM departments (science, technology, engineering and math), 26 percent of assistant professors,

22 percent of associate professors and 9 percent of full professors are women. A study done in 2003 looked at all faculty hired in STEM fields between 1993 and 1998. At three years, 12 percent of men had resigned; for women it was 21 percent.

"Women don't advance like their male counterparts. They do not achieve the highest levels of what we measure as success," Bowen said. "In fact, many tenure-track women faculty drop out before they even get tenure."

It's not just among faculty ranks. There is a lack of advancement into administrative roles as well. For example, most department chairs in STEM departments are male. This will be another area of research for the ADVANCE team.

The main barriers women faculty on campus have identified in past retreats are:

  • work-family balance
  • feeling isolated
  • lack of transparency, for example, a complete understanding of how decisions such as gaining tenure or class teaching loads are made
  • a lack of effective mentoring.

Do men perceive the same barriers? It's one question ADVANCE will investigate.

"We know women are leaving the scientific workforce and these are issues important to them," Bowen said. "If we could change these things, it will create a better environment for men, too."

The program

Departments that were chosen to take part in the program have a minimum of 15 faculty, female faculty and some established diversity, and a commitment to ADVANCE goals. The goals of ISU ADVANCE, in short, are to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers and to make Iowa State an optimal environment for all faculty.

"It's not just a matter of instituting policies and saying 'do this,'" Bowen said. "You need to work with people in their day-to-day activities and work with them to collaborate on ways to change."

There will be three phases, each involving three additional departments. The first departments are: genetics, development and cell biology; ecology, evolution and organismal biology; and materials science and engineering. Three more departments will be added in two years, followed by the final three in year five.

Faculty, both men and women, from participating departments will be broken into small focus groups that take part in a dozen confidential meetings. The focus groups will be led by outside facilitator Karla Erickson of the Grinnell College sociology department. Some faculty will participate in individual interviews, conducted by Erickson and ISU social scientists Sharon Bird and Florence Hamrick.

Not the cookie-cutter approach

Data analysis from the focus groups and interviews will determine behavior patterns that promote or hinder success and advancement in each department. That data will be used to develop strategies to overcome any revealed problems.

"The issues in one department might be very different in another one," Bowen said. "It's important to offer the opportunities for change that are appropriate in that unit." She added that information on successes in one department may lead to new strategies, as well.

NSF requires ISU to report specific quantitative data, such as the numbers of men and women at each rank in each department - historically, currently and as the program progresses. Number of promotions and salary distribution by gender also will be considered.

The NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation (IT) Program will compare data from all of the universities taking part in the program. The NSF ADVANCE IT Program has awarded grants to 31 universities since its inception in 2001.

As the program proceeds, information sharing on results of the data will be done through "equity advisers," faculty members in each college who will work with administrators and committees to implement change.

Bowen sees the departmental change eventually working its way through campus and having a positive impact on all faculty even beyond the five-year scope of the project.

"We hope this increased visibility will help us achieve our goal to better support the careers of all faculty at ISU," Bowen said.


The NSF-funded ISU ADVANCE program will study issues that impact female faculty in science and engineering.