The national press daily carries articles about how few women in the United States choose careers in science, engineering or math.
Educators worry about how to keep girls and young women from dropping out of these fields. But what is it like to be a female professor in one of these disciplines, and in particular, what factors affect these professors at their peak, when they are in mid-career?
This question is critically important: These professors serve as role models for future generations of women. Therefore, they are key to improving women’s participation in science and engineering in the United States.
A new project at NIU will explore this question, comparing the career progress of female professors in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as compared to men.
“Navigate, Balance, and Retain: Developing Success in Mid-career for Female Faculty,” which involves the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, is funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Catalyst grant. NIU’s project is distinctive because it focuses on mid-career faculty as opposed to those entering the profession, and because it also will look at the experiences of women at national laboratories, such as Argonne and Fermi.
The Catalyst initiative is part of the NSF ADVANCE program, which funds larger-scale projects to transform the climate in higher education institutions for female faculty. About 10 institutions receive Catalyst funds a year.
“This will benefit everyone in STEM disciplines. Recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty will help us recruit and retain a more diverse student body. The Catalyst grant, as the name suggests, is the first step in that direction,” says Christopher K. McCord, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and principal investigator on the grant.
Rigg, who is passionate about her field, is “excited about the prospect of enlarging the group of faculty who teach in this area.”
Coller sees the grant as “an important step in a long-term effort to strengthen the representation and impact of women faculty in engineering.” Paralleling national demographics, women comprise less than 10 percent of engineering professors at NIU.
The first year of the project calls for interviews, surveys and focus groups to understand the factors that affect the success of female faculty members in STEM areas, with a particular focus on work-life balance. This qualitative information will be complemented by quantitative data gathered from multiple sources within the university, and it will enable the grant team to identify issues for further study in 2011-2012.
In the end, the grant team hopes to be able to make recommendations for policy changes and improved mentoring to enhance the career success of female faculty and to improve NIU’s ability to keep these valuable members of the professoriate.
“Many women professors in the sciences are the only females in their departments, and their experiences can be lonely. As a result, in universities across the country, women are leaving the sciences, and when they leave, we lose all of discoveries they might have made,” Levin says. “By studying how these women fare in mid-career, we hope to find ways to solve this problem and thus to promote scientific discovery.”