Why does it take longer for women to become full professors in math, engineering and the sciences than it does for men?
Is there a gender bias holding women back in these fields, or do family responsibilities, such as raising children and managing a household, slow down a female scientist’s professional growth?
These questions will be addressed and answered with the help of a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded jointly to Union College in Schenectady and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
The three-year study by researchers at both colleges will focus on recruiting and retaining female professors in the sciences, technology, engineering and math (called the STEM disciplines).
When Union College math professor Brenda Johnson was attending graduate school at Brown University she found only one female math professor in a department of 25 faculty members.
“It’s difficult being in the minority. There are fewer role models,” Johnson said Monday.
She said during her six years of graduate study, which led to her doctorate in mathematics, only four women finished the program. Other women, who were just as qualified, dropped out for one reason or another.
“When you don’t see other women succeeding it can be difficult,” Johnson said,
Johnson and Skidmore College math professor Alice Dean are the co-principal investigators for the grant project. A dozen other faculty members at the colleges will be involved in the research work.
“Things have certainly improved over the years,” said Dean. But she said women still represent a smaller portion of members of science faculties in the upper ranks of the profession.
“We want to hear from women at all levels,” Dean said. “What are their issues?”
Dean said the grant will provide help and mentoring for two groups of women in the sciences, math and engineering. The first group is women who are on track for tenure but have not yet received it.
“We want to help them achieve tenure,” Dean said.
The second group is women in the sciences who have achieved tenure as an associate professor but have not yet been named a full professor. Dean said the study will determine ways to help them achieve the rank of full professor.
“We are not trying to disadvantage men; we hope these things will help men, too,” Dean said.
Dean said that some female assistant professors “put part of their lives on hold” while they work to achieve tenure. But once they have tenure as an associate professor, they may start spending more time on family matters rather than doing research and publishing scholarly papers that could lead to a full professorship.
The grant program will provide such professors with help to update them in their field, allow them to return to research or travel to visit with a collaborating colleague at another college or university.
Dean said in many cases, more of the family responsibilities fall on a woman. “It makes it harder to travel, to go to conferences in their field,” she said.
Dean knows this firsthand: She had twins, a girl and a boy, 24 years ago.
Johnson said in Union College’s math department there are four tenured women and six or seven tenured male professors. There are six women in a math faculty of 13.
“Things have changed,” Johnson said. She said when she came to Union in 1992, there was only one other woman in the math department.
In Union’s chemistry department there are more female professors than male professors, Johnson said.
The idea of gender bias will also be studied. Johnson said some suspect there may be a gender bias in student evaluations of a given professor. In this area, the grant project may survey undergraduate students at the two colleges regarding gender bias in their written evaluations of a professor.
Work has already started on the project. Focus groups have met at Union and will do the same soon at Skidmore.
Johnson said she and Dean will sometimes meet face to face, but have been exchanging daily e-mails as teams of researchers begin their work and address the issues.
The results of the research will be shared with other colleges and universities.
Skidmore and Union were the only liberal arts colleges to receive grants from the National Science Foundation in this round in this area. The National Science Foundation’s Advance Program is dedicated to increasing representation of women in academic science and engineering careers.