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Lessons from the Field: Strategies and Priorities to Increase the Representation of Women in STEM


November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Jeanne M. Andreoli, Marygrove College

Jane Hammang-Buhl, Marygrove College

Sally A. Welch, Marygrove College


Puzzles often stimulate intellectual curiosity.  Complex puzzles often push us toward conversation with others enabling us to discover clues to the puzzle.  At Marygrove College three women department chairs in different fields—biology, chemistry, and computer information systems (CIS) have engaged in multiple conversations about a complex puzzle: Why aren’t there more women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)?  Where have they gone?  

We have used data gathered from the National Science Foundation (NSB 2006; NSF 2003; NSF 2006; NSF 2007) to highlight the attrition of women as a percentage of degree recipients (bachelor through post-doctorate) in the STEM fields.   We have also used the data to track the tenure status of women, illustrated in the table below.


Table 1:  Women as a Percentage of Tenure Status at 4-year Colleges and Universities in 2003*


Non-Tenure Track



























* Data compiled from NSF, 2007


We extended our conversation in a panel discussion at the FRN Symposium “Advancing Women and the Underrepresented in the Academy.”  What follows is its brief summary.

Conversational Context
Our discussions occur within a particular context—a frame of reference that shapes the way we make meaning of this problem.  That context includes four elements which we briefly summarize.  First, the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunity Act in 1980 suggested the promise of change.  But five national organizations produced studies over a 14 year period identifying aspects of the problem and potential solutions (Zimbler, 1993; “A Study…”, 1999; Committee…., 2006; PKAL, 2006; Committee…, 2007).  By 2006, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights initiated compliance reviews based on Title IX because of continued discrimination in STEM (Kauffman, 2007).  Second, those studies helped us identify key issues from data that highlighting action priorities.

Third, our conversations are in the context of widespread inertia on change in organizational climate, in spite of the frequency of its identification in the national studies as a key element retarding change.  Why aren’t things changing?  We’ve speculated about causes of institutional inertia and posed these opinions:

  • Selective perception impacts the ability to hear the needs of women in STEM.
  • Climate initiatives regarding hiring, socialization, and early mentoring are sporadic.
  • Vertical segregation in STEM organizational hierarchies not only discourages women, but also affects championing of climate initiates.
  • The career stage of a faculty member impacts alliance-building.

This last opinion forms the final aspect of the context of our conversation about where all the women have gone.  Since we each represent faculty members at different stages in our careers, our own experiences have sensitized us to the challenge of understanding one another’s experiences.  It led us to formulate a preliminary categorization of the different issues women deal with at different stages of their careers.  For example, issues of male-dominated curriculum and pedagogy may create tensions for new tenure track women faculty, while mid-career women tend to experience the administrative service torrent.

Our understanding of the multifaceted, complex puzzle of paucity of women in STEM leads us to a quest for strategies to increase numbers and change organizational climate.  From our more extensive research we focus on three critical strategies:

    1. formal family-friendly institutional policies
    2. ways to create work-life harmony
    3. transformative leadership 

Family Friendly Policies
Nearly half of the women employed in the STEM disciplines earned their degrees in the past decade, so a significant portion of the talent pool is in their child-bearing/rearing years (NSF, 2007).  When considering employment options, family-friendly policies make a difference.  Researchers distinguish different types of family-friendly academic institution policies, in addition to policies mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993Tenure-clock extension allows a period of time that is not counted as part of the tenure-probationary period.  Modified duties result in a reduction in job responsibilities without any reduction in pay.  Leave in excess of FMLAextends unpaid leaves beyond the FMLA- mandated 12weeks.  Paid dependent, parent, and spouse care leave supports a faculty member’s family responsibilities for a period of time.  A reduced appointment allows a faculty member to work less than 100% for the institution.

The Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan produced an instructive snapshot of where higher education institutions stand with regard to family friendly policies (Waltman, et al., 2005).  While no category of institution has a majority of family–friendly policies, only elite baccalaureate and research institutions are likely to have formal policies.  The rest, if they have family-friendly initiatives, usually have informal policies.  Their informal nature creates the possibility of disparate treatment among departments which discourages persistence in an academic career.

Work-Life Harmony
Parenting and TSS Synergies

Perhaps one reason for the attrition of women in STEM academia may result from a conscious choice to balance career aspirations with family obligations.  Data validates this hypothesis. Recent reports indicate that 49% of women in the part time STEM workforce cite family responsibilities as their reason not to work full-time, while only 9% of men cite the same reason (Table H-11, NSF, 2007).

For women faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for teaching, scholarship and service (TSS) with a personal life.  Kerka (2001) eloquently suggests that “balance is for checkbooks”; perhaps we should seek harmonization between the dual roles and responsibilities.  One method to achieve work-life harmony is to find synergies among TSS work.

One of us (Jeanne Andreoli) is the mother of four children who are stepping through the K-12 pipeline.  During her postdoctoral years, she struggled with the conundrum of raising a family and rising in the ranks of the highly competitive molecular biology research arena.  Through mentoring summer undergraduate students and volunteering as an extra-curricular science instructor she discovered a new venue of research, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).  She began to direct her research questions toward how new pedagogies could motivate students (girls especially) to learn science and eventually pursue careers in science; and used her students’ as well as her children’s classrooms as her living laboratory. While SoTL is gaining momentum and credibility in higher education, as evidenced by the proliferation of literature about the subject (Boyer, 1990; NRC, 2000; Bernstein and Bass, 2005), the status of SoTL is still an issue in the Rank and Tenure process and needs to be addressed if we are to reverse the trends depicted in Table 1.

Grant Writing and Community Building Synergies

After working a few years at Marygrove, Jeanne and Sally realized that grant writing was just as indispensable at a Liberal Arts teaching institution as at our former Research 1 Universities; and if we wanted to pursue our research interests then we would have to undertake grant-writing - one of the very activities that contributed to leaving our previous institutions, and that Smith-Doerr (2004) attributes to gender inequality and vertical segregation in the sciences.

We “stumbled” upon Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) in 1999 while researching material for our first NSF-CCLI grant proposal regarding an interdisciplinary program.  PKAL is a leading advocate in the U.S. in building and sustaining strong undergraduate programs in STEM (  Our involvement with PKAL activities led to the development of an interdisciplinary team to work together on a Department of Education grant proposal, which was subsequently funded.

Through serendipitous networking, our paths crossed with Jane who also had common research interests with respect to environmental issues and interdisciplinary teaching. The strategy we pursued was similar to one initiated at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Murray Center for Women in Technology. NJIT uses an NSF ADVANCE grant to develop female-majority interdisciplinary research communities capitalizing on the “strength of weak ties.” (Steffen-Fluhr, 2006).   We strengthened our individual approaches by combining forces in both grant writing and team-teaching in the college’s interdisciplinary studies.  We continue to look for synergies in our work, as is evidenced by us coming together in this panel about increasing the representation of women in STEM.

The “Decompression Group”

We have created a women’s group similar to “The X-Gals Alliance” (Louis, 2007).  Our “Decompression Group” consists primarily of middle career women from different areas of the college.  We meet at least once a month in “safe place” to let off steam (decompress). We consider ourselves a “safe group” in that we meet off campus with an agreement that “what is said in a meeting stays in a meeting”.  It is through the stories we share with each other that we learn how to deal with many of the issues covered in this panel.  It has given each member a sense of trust, support and encouragement, and has diminished individual isolation.

Transformative Leadership
Harmonizing Scholarship with Leadership: Co-chairs model

Sally and Jeanne proposed a novel departmental leadership scenario when the previous chair announced that he would be stepping down.  We proposed a departmental co-chair model that would serve two purposes: 1) a way to decrease the burden of departmental leadership tasks/responsibilities on one individual, so that their scholarship would not be compromised as they assumed the role; 2) a method to nurture and refine the skills of two aspiring academic leaders while providing continuity in departmental leadership. One of the main objectives of the proposal was to allow for each of us to act as a mentor to the other in areas where we were less experienced. As a senior faculty leader, Jane also acts as a mentor and sound board relating to career, college and department issues.

We have worked closely together over the past few years on a variety of college activities, including: writing and managing grants; coordinating department retreats; collaborating with PKAL in the Leadership Institution Initiative; spear-heading curricular transformation activities within the department and college.  Furthermore, we bring to the table different perspectives that help maintain the objectivity required in a leadership role.   We have been able to use the position to encourage faculty to participate in the SoTL. We have also worked with the department to create more of a sense of community among the faculty, staff, and students. Our unique co-chair model has allowed us to become the “linchpin” in institutional transformation which Weatherby metaphorically describes in PKAL Volume IV (2005).

Conclusion and Priorities
Our understanding of research on reasons why women are absent from STEM disciplines in higher education lead us to what we think are significant priorities for action in institutions committed to reverse those downward trends.  What we propose is focused primarily on short term initiatives.

  • First, we recognize the momentum that a lofty goal can create.  So we urge institutions to accept the goal set by the Association for Women in Science—a 50%-50% male-female split in the number of women involved in STEM by 2020. 
  • Second, we stress the importance of faculty members lobbying and collaborating to develop formal family friendly institutional policies. 
  • Third, faculty members need to insist on institutional leadership for transformative changes in climate, through institutional policies regarding recruitment and department chair training.  Within an institution, the model of learning communities, used for example by Texas A & M’s College of Science and Engineering, seems to be an effective strategy in helping faculty members, department chairs, and deans to think differently about organizational climate (Covington & Froyd, 2004).  However, frequently the new ideas and strategies to impact transformative change emerge from a faculty member’s engagement for a sustained period with a STEM-focused professional association.  Since there are more than thirty such organizations, it is possible to find an organization that deals with questions and issues of particular interest to a faculty member (American… 2005).  We have discovered that Project Kaleidoscope has been helpful to us because of its unique ability to bring together faculty and administrators from all disciplines and institutional types to advocate for undergraduate STEM transformation.
  • Finally, we encourage faculty members in the STEM disciplines to aspire to work-life harmony by finding synergies in Teaching-Service-Scholarship, with teaching & scholarship taking priority.

Our conversations have benefited us individually, but as department chairs they have also helped us focus on where we need to begin to change our institutions so that more women trained in the STEM disciplines choose a long-term, satisfying career in higher education.


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