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Building Leaders, Networks and Skills

New collaboration to benefit women faculty in science, technology, engineering and math

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January 18, 2012 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have launched the Chicago Collaboration for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, a three-year effort to enhance the recruitment and advancement of women faculty members in those fields.

“The University of Chicago and Northwestern are vitally concerned about the advancement of women in STEM at our respective institutions, and through this collaboration we have dedicated ourselves to making significant progress,” said UChicago Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.

Important elements of the collaboration involve studying the apparent relative strengths and weaknesses of the respective institutions when it comes to fostering a positive climate for women in STEM, said Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer. “As we began working together on this important initiative, we recognized that we could potentially gain some valuable new insights, not just for Northwestern and the University of Chicago, but for other like-minded institutions,” Linzer said.

The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields in 2010, according to UChicago officials, were basic biological sciences, 23 percent; physical sciences, 10 percent; and social sciences, 29 percent. The percentage of tenure-track women in STEM fields at Northwestern for the same period were biological sciences, 20 percent; engineering, 11 percent; physical sciences, 14 percent; and social sciences, 36 percent.

Skill building and networking

The new collaboration for women in STEM includes two yearlong programs: Navigating the Professoriate, for tenure-eligible faculty members; and Beyond Tenure, for tenured associate professors and professors. Tenured and tenure-track women in STEM fields can learn more about these programs online.

Networking is an important aspect of the programs, said Mary Harvey, associate provost for program development at UChicago.

“This is partly about helping women advance into leadership roles. It’s also very much about helping them develop their networks. In some disciplines in the sciences, women are few and far between, and they feel a tremendous sense of isolation,” she said. “It’s also about recruitment, because having a vigorous program like this in place will help us bring more women scientists onto our faculty.”

The Navigating the Professoriate program is designed for tenure-track assistant professors in the biological, physical and social sciences, and in engineering. Northwestern offered Navigating the Professoriate in 2007 and 2009, but now the program is being offered as a joint program with UChicago for the first time.

“The genesis of the idea came from an existing program in one of our biological sciences departments,” said Katherine Faber, the Walter P. Murphy Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. That program was designed to help graduate students and postdoctoral scientists prepare for the professoriate. “In planning for a National Science Foundation proposal the notion came up that pre-tenure faculty members might also find some of those skill-building sessions useful,” Faber said.

The program began Oct. 26 with a session on “The Art of Negotiating,” led by Victoria Medvec, executive director of Northwestern’s Center for Executive Women and the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

“Statistically it’s fairly well documented that, on average, women do not negotiate as often or as well as their male counterparts,” Faber said. “Just in knowing that and learning a few negotiating skills, I think our female faculty feel much more confident in their ability to negotiate things like salary and space.”

The Beyond Tenure program kicked off Oct. 17 with a session titled “What’s Next: Imagining Your Career.” The program was designed to helped tenured professors in the biological, physical and social sciences become architects of their own destiny. “The idea of taking the long view of your own career and figuring out what you need to do to get there after you’ve already gained a level of success is really a new perspective for many women,” said Peggy Mason, one of the program’s organizers and a professor of neurobiology at UChicago.

Women can decide to continue what they have already been doing, but other choices might include becoming a department head or dean, taking a leadership role in a professional society, directing a center, or starting a company.

The effectiveness of the programs is being assessed via questionnaires administered to participants before and after each session. “I think we need more of this type of information to figure out how to improve our offerings and also to allow us to begin to think about how to move forward with other programs for STEM women,” Faber said.

The Jan. 18 Navigating the Professoriate program focused on developing mentoring and management skills for scientists and engineers. The next Beyond Tenure program, on Jan. 31, will explore how women scientists can work effectively with reporters and broadcasters to get public attention for their research.

Persistent collaborators

UChicago and Northwestern have been working for years toward their new collaboration for women in STEM. Both institutions had unsuccessfully sought ADVANCE grant funding from the National Science Foundation, twice independently and the third time jointly, to develop systematic approaches for improving the recruitment, promotion and retention of women in STEM careers. The provosts of both institutions then decided to self-fund the joint initiative.

Even though the Northwestern-UChicago ADVANCE grant application was not funded, “we thought that the ideas were good enough and that the opportunities for collaboration were interesting enough and potentially impactful enough that we should pursue them anyhow,” Harvey said.

The new collaboration is a beneficial result of the joint application to NSF, agreed James Young, associate provost and professor of medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “We’ll look back and feel how fortunate it was that we came together to do this and not focus on the fact that we didn’t get funding the first time around,” Young predicted. 

Topics: University