Women in STEM Faculty Positions Part 3/3: What can we do to improve?

How can we improve the quality of life at work for women in stem faculty positions?

Problems faced by underrepresented groups in academic fields are being brought to the forefront of discussions on how institutions of higher learning can improve the quality of professional life, and the quality of life, in general, for these groups. Among the struggles to address include those faced by women in STEM faculty positions. Women are subjected to many stressors in their academic positions in these predominantly male-dominated fields. These can include finding it challenging to balance work and family/personal demands, navigating gender bias in academic, and difficulties in finding institutions that offer and implement family-friendly policies. What are some improvements that can be made in STEM academic departments at universities that will benefit women and allow for equitable treatment of both male and female faculty?

1. Destigmatize seeking a healthy work-life balance

Academics, whether they are graduate students pursuing faculty positions in the future, early-career academics, or full professors, need to have a healthy work-life balance. The pressure to stay up-to-date and make progress in research is always there, but no one should be looked down upon for trying to maintain a healthy personal life with friends and family while also advancing their career. There are certainly some instances where the individual and/or their family come first and that should be respected. Faculty should be able to set boundaries for what they allow when it comes to their work and their personal life for a good balance of the two. If someone prioritizes their family in some situations, it does not mean that they are not serious about their careers. This is especially important for women when it comes to building their families as women are the medium through which a life enters this world. Pregnancy can be longer than nine months, and women, just like any other people who go through a physically traumatic experience, need time to recover, which may require them to take time off. Taking time off for physical and mental recovery, not only from pregnancies but from other aspects of life (this can be for both men and women) should be normalized and not seen as someone taking the easy path or being lazy. There are times when it is important to prioritize the self over work and this should not be stigmatized.

2. Implement and normalize family-friendly policies

Institutions of higher learning are doing better at creating family-friendly policies, but there are still improvements that need to be made. These policies should not be created just to check off a requirement or to make the institution’s reception by the public better. When a woman in a STEM faculty position uses one of these policies, like taking family leave or delaying the “tenure-clock”, they should not be seen as weak or as getting extra time. It should be normal for someone to use policies made available to them and not be chastised for it by their colleagues. Men should be encouraged to take advantage of the policies as well. The departments should also make it known to their employees that there are facilities available to them and that they are free to use them as they deem appropriate. Having the policies buried deep in some handbook does not help as many people may have never heard of them or know that they exist.

3. Eliminate gender bias with seminars and training

While it is impossible for someone to be completely impartial, universities can do better to ensure that their employees are educated on gender bias and how they can eliminate biased practices in their careers. This includes eliminating gender bias in hiring and promotion practices. We have a great program here at Virginia Tech where employees need to go through Diversity and Inclusion training. There should be specific training for faculty and those in positions to hire and promote other faculty. If a man’s family responsibilities are not brought up during an interview, then a woman’s should not be either. Women should be given the same departmental resources as men and have the same networks made available to them.

4. Create positive mentoring experiences for women

Retention of women in STEM fields is low as the focus is on recruitment and there is often no follow-up with those who choose to pursue a career in a STEM field. Women can benefit from seeing other women in STEM faculty positions. As a student, I enjoyed seeing how strong and determined my undergraduate research advisor was and how she balanced her family life and her career. This encouraged me to pursue a career in academia. Other young female students can benefit from seeing female professors succeeding in their careers and not having to choose their work over their family or vice versa. While it is common for students to seek mentors, it needs to be more common for early-career academics to have mentors. Female early-career academics will benefit from having a mentor who may be of a higher rank who can help guide them in navigating the difficulties of a career in academia. Cornell University has a program called Women in Science and Engineering that is a resource for female faculty in engineering. [1] More universities should think about implementing a similar program to help female early-career academics find their footing as they not only face the challenges of starting their career but also have unique roadblocks associated with being a minority in a STEM field.

There are certainly more ways to improve the experience of women in STEM faculty positions, but the four suggestions made above would be a great place to start. Any university or academic department looking to increase the quality of their working conditions for women in STEM, or in general fields of study, should do the following: Ask your female employees what they want and programs they think can be created or policies that can be implemented that will make them enjoy their jobs and reduce the stress associated with being a minority in their field.


References:

[1] https://www.engineering.cornell.edu/research-and-faculty/faculty/resources-faculty/women-science-and-engineering

Women in STEM Faculty Positions Part 2/3: Reflections from Women

Reflections from women in stem faculty positions

Female STEM faculty face many stressors in the workplace such as balancing life and work, gender bias in the field, gender bias in hiring and promotion, and working in a male-dominated field. These stressors often discourage women from staying in their fields or make them become disillusioned with a field of study they were once in love with.

As an aspiring professor and woman studying Mechanical Engineering, I myself have felt some of the stress from the above-mentioned problems and can see how it not only affects me but also some of the female faculty that I have had the opportunity to interact with. To begin, I will share my own reflections on being a woman in a STEM field and my own experience in academia.

Before I began college, I considered different engineering majors to study and Mechanical Engineering was the one that was the most attractive to me. From then on, when discussing my major, I would often hear phrases like “That’s not a place for a woman to be!” from older males and sometimes was asked questions like “OK, sure. What do you know about cars? Do you know anything about engines?” from younger, more zealous males. I chose Mechanical Engineering because of its applied nature and the mix of mathematics and physics that I would learn–two subjects that I really enjoyed in school. Many people have the misconception that Mechanical Engineers solely work on cars, or that they need to do a lot of heavy lifting or hands-on work. This misconception and the enforcement of gendered tasks is detrimental to women interested in the field and discourages them from giving it a chance. I, thankfully, did not care for these comments and ignored them.

Now, as a Ph.D. student, I have made it through the four-year undergraduate degree program in Mechanical Engineering where I was often one of maybe eight females in a class of 50 students. I have also had the opportunity to be a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) for different courses and practice teaching small groups of students. I did not have much difficulty reaching out to the females in many of my student groups, however, I did encounter males who were less receptive to my communication with them and would instead try to tell me that they knew better (i.e. mansplain) some topics to me.

Some of the other responsibilities of Ph.D. students and faculty have also stood out to me as possible barriers to success for females. The pressure to show progress and publish papers as a graduate student and early career faculty is very intense. I often wonder how mothers handle these responsibilities while also finding time to take care of their children and themselves (especially during pregnancy). While the child is the responsibility of both parents, the process of having a child is on the mother for at least nine months and includes a lot of physical and mental change. Many women are looked down upon for taking time off for pregnancy and recovery after childbirth and it can delay their progress in securing their faculty positions. To get more insight on struggles females face in faculty STEM positions, we will look at the findings presented in a doctoral dissertation titled Leaning into Engineering: Tenured Women Faculty and the Policies and Programs That Support Them written by Deborah Karpman [1].

Karpman’s findings include information on how women balance work and family demands, sources of support such as family-friendly policies, and navigating gender bias in institutions. She specifically looked at three research universities and interviewed some of their female engineering faculty.

Balancing Work and Family Demands

The women interviewed reveal that balancing work and family demands is one of the most challenging aspects of their careers. Many felt that their work was dominating their life and that they were not able to spend more time with their families fulfilling their responsibilities as caregivers. One professor even mentioned that she was not even trying to find a balance as that was too difficult, instead she was just trying to survive. Many women find that they have to make trade-offs and either put work before family or vice versa. This can strain their family relationships, or it can strain their work relationships. There is often a stigma surrounding women who put family first as they are seen as not willing to put in the effort for their careers or less capable than the men in their fields. This can lead to impartiality in hiring and promotion practices, which will be discussed later.

Family-Friendly Policies

Institutions of higher education have been and continue to implement more family-friendly policies such as taking leave for the birth of a child or getting an extension on the tenure-clock. Oftentimes, there is a stigma surrounding these policies as some may think that women are given some kind of advantage over men because of the availability of family-friendly policies. Some institutions are successful in making family-friendly policies available to men and women to try and reduce the stigma and normalize taking time off for family. At other institutions, these policies are available, but not many people are made aware of them as they are buried deep down in some handbook and rarely discussed. Women at the research universities Karpman focused on detailed being made to feel like they were asking for too much too soon if they were recent hires in terms of taking maternity leave, or being made to feel like they needed to be tough and work through pregnancies/recovery time. Not only do women who have families need to prioritize and organize their lives according to the demands of their jobs and families, but they also have this extra added pressure of how their actions will be perceived and if they will have a negative effect on their careers. Family-friendly policies are great and more institutions should have them, but those institutions also need to encourage their faculty to have a healthy balance between their work and their personal/family life.

Navigating Gender Bias

Gender bias is present in hiring and promotion practices as well in the resources/networks that are made available to women. In hiring and promoting women, women interviewees may be asked about their families and the responsibilities they have whereas their male counterparts who also have families are not asked the same. While there are some pushes for diversity recruitment at some institutions, retainment needs to be looked at along with how those hires feel they are being treated in their jobs. Some women have experienced older men say things like “It should be easy for you to get hired because more and more places are looking to diversify their faculty”. Comments like these make women STEM faculty question their abilities and the quality of their work. This leads to negative self-talk like “Am I being hired because I have a good record or because this department needs to hire more women? Am I worthy of this position?” These questions adversely affect the mental health of many women and lower their self-esteem. Working in a male-dominated field is also challenging because it may limit the resources/networks made available to women. Women may be left out of workplace friend/colleague groups that are all male simply because they are women. This may make women feel like they do not have access to seniors in their departments who could have been potential mentors or just a good colleague/friend.

Karpman does an excellent job detailing her findings in her doctoral dissertation. There are more problems and findings available in her dissertation.


References:

[1] Karpman, D. (2015). Leaning into Engineering: Tenured Women Faculty and the Policies and Programs That Support Them. UCLA. ProQuest ID: Karpman_ucla_0031D_13744. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5cz5g21. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5t67b4wz

Women in STEM Faculty Positions Part 1/3: The Facts

The treatment of underrepresented minorities in various aspects of life such as justice, education, and employment has emerged as an important conversation in recent years. The injustices faced by these minorities need to be discussed in order to implement systematic and institutional change to the more equitable and inclusive treatment of minorities. One such conversation has been sparked in higher education and is centered on the treatment of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) faculty positions. There are many programs that have been created to recruit more females into STEM fields at the high school, college, and university levels. However, it is questionable whether the same effort has been made to help those very females advance in their careers. The focus cannot just be on the recruitment of more women into STEM fields, but it needs to extend to the retention and advancement of their careers once they complete their education. 

This three-part series of blog posts will focus on how women in STEM faculty positions are treated and what the barriers to their success are. In this first installment, the facts of how institutions treat female STEM faculty will be presented. This assessment will help to uncover the disparities of hiring, promotion, and salaries between men and women in STEM fields.


An assessment of the statistics on women in stem faculty* positions

To begin understanding how women in STEM faculty positions are treated, the available statistics are assessed. Looking at the statistics allows for objective assessment of how hiring and promoting practices among institutes of higher learning are biased against or for women. There are two aspects to be considered here: (1) how far are we from equal representation of males and females across STEM fields?; and (2) how far are we from equitable treatment of males and females in STEM fields?

The American Society for Engineering Education publishes an annual report called Engineering and Engineering Technology by the Numbers. [1]  In Fig. 1, the percentage of female tenured/tenure-track faculty are shown by discipline. In the disciplines shown in the figure, we can see that female tenured/tenure-track faculty comprise no more than 30 percent of the tenured/tenure-track faculty. Even 30 percent is high when looking at the chart, as in many disciplines we see that this number is usually around 20 percent. The argument could be made that perhaps there are not enough women in these fields, thus they only make up one-fifth of the tenured/tenure-track faculty. But, the underlying reason as to why there is not more recruitment or retainment of women in STEM fields goes into more of a subjective discussion which will be included in the second blog post.

Figure 1. Percentage of Female Tenured/Tenure-Track Faculty by Discipline. [1]

Ceci et al. show how employment of females in STEM faculty positions has changed from 1973 to 2010. [2] They use data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to show that female employment in different STEM fields has increased over the 27-year period. In Fig. 2 we see this trend of increased female faculty employment, however, there are higher numbers of females in assistant professor positions and this did not translate over into the females in tenured and tenure-track faculty positions. From this information, it can be observed that females in these fields are not easily able to transition from assistant professor positions to tenured and tenure-track faculty positions (this includes the titles of associate and full professor). 

Figure 2. Females in STEM faculty positions broken down by field: (a) Percentage Female Among Tenure-Track Assistant Professors (b) Percentage Female Among Tenured and Tenure-Track Faculty. [2]

In Fig. 3, the results are shared by Gumpertz et al. in their analysis of four land grant insitutions. [3] They divided the STEM fields into four categories: (1) Agriculture and Natural Resources, (2) Biological and Biomedical Sciences, (3) Engineering, and (4) Physical and Math Sciences. The percentage of female assistant professors at these insitutions in each category is presented along with the percent of faculty in each group. At LG1, we can see that females comprise only 19% of the 124 assistant professors in engineering. At LG1, LG3, and LG4, female assistant professors consitute only one-fourth of the total number of assistant professors. At LG2, women hold one-third of the assistant professor positions, which is a step closer in the direction of equal representation.

Figure 3. Number of female assistant professors in STEM at four land-grant institutions broken down into four categories: (1)  agricultural and natural resources, (2) biological and biomedical sciences, (3) engineering, and (4) physical and math sciences. [3]

The median salaries of faculty by gender, field, and faculty rank are also investigated in Fig. 4. [4]  The Society of Women Engineers put together this chart based on data  collected in 2017 by the NSF National Center for Science and Enginering Statistics. In general, in engineering and computer and information sciences, women are paid less across all positions. The only exception here is that female associate professors in engineering are paid four percent more than their male counterparts. The reasons for these discrepancies are unknown. There should not be a pay gap between men and women in these fields. For equitable treatment, all employees at the same rank should be paid equally. It is important to have female representation across STEM fields, but it is of equal importance to ensure that males and females in STEM fields are paid the same if they have the same experience level and rank. The gender pay gap needs to be closed.

Figure 4. Median salaries of faculty, by gender, field, and faculty rank. [4]

Women in STEM faculty positions are, in general, underrepresented and underpaid. The next post will go into subjective assessment of women in STEM faculty positions and include reflections from those who are in those positions and those aspiring for a faculty position.


*Faculty: In this post, and in the following posts, faculty will refer to anyone in assistant, associate, and full professor positions. Some of the papers referenced in this post use faculty to describe tenured and tenure-track faculty, and specifically call out tenure-track assistant professors.


References:

[1] American Society for Engineering Education. (2020). Engineering and Engineering Technology by the Numbers 2019. Washington, DC.

[2] Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100614541236

[3] Gumpertz M, Durodoye R, Griffith E, Wilson A (2017) Retention and promotion of women and underrepresented minority faculty in science and engineering at four large land grant institutions. PLOS ONE 12(11): e0187285. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187285

[4] https://research.swe.org/2016/08/tenure-tenure-track-faculty-levels/

Rising Cost of Higher Ed

The rising cost of higher education has been a cause of concern for many students and their families. We have more students leaving colleges and universities with huge amounts of debt that will take them years to pay back, assuming that they can even pay all of it back within their lifetimes. Below, we can see how average tuition and fees for colleges and universities have increased in recent years. The fees are reflected in current 2020 dollars.

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020, Figure CP-2. [1]

 

In just 30 years, we see that the tuition and fees for private nonprofit four-year institutions have doubled. Public four-year institutions have almost tripled their tuition and fees. In 1991, the minimum wage was $4.25 and now in 2020, it is $7.25 [2]. The minimum wage hasn’t even doubled, but college and university fees have been increasing tremendously. In fact, the minimum wage has been the same since 2009, so it hasn’t even increased in the last 11 years.  The university fees on the chart above are shown in the current 2020 dollars, but the minimum wage does not reflect the same. We know that the cost of living has increased and is still increasing and that one 40-hour per week minimum wage job is not enough to provide a livable income for one person. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why every year fewer and fewer people are able to attend universities. Some people might need to work 2 full-time jobs to make ends meet. This affects the diversity we see in college and universities where it seems that we are reverting to a system where universities will only be available to the wealthy and those of lower socioeconomic status are deterred by the high cost of education not only for the four years that they will attend the institution, but for many years thereafter if they need to pay back loans.

I truly hope that student loan debt is canceled in the near future. I was fortunate enough to not have to take out loans for my education, but there are so many people around the country who cannot afford the same luxury. If student loan debt is canceled, it will encourage many people to enroll in colleges and universities and allow for economic stimulus as students/those paying back loans will be able to use those funds for other things such as purchasing homes and potentially investing in other areas. My concern is for those who have private loans as the government can only cancel federal student loan debt. What can be done to help them?

I dream that one day if student loan debt is canceled, then we can also work on free public universities in the USA. I think it will take some time to get there, but I hope to see more people on Congress who can advocate for students and the public for these benefits. It will greatly improve our society if more people have access to higher education. If we can’t get to free immediately, we can at least start with the government subsidizing costs and helping to reduce tuition and fees at public four-year institutions.

 

 

[1] https://research.collegeboard.org/trends/college-pricing/resource-library

[2] https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/minimum-wage/history/chart