Top Schools Are Pursuing Pledge to Redress Bias

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Princeton Provost Shirley Tilghman

(WOMENSENEWS)–There’s a funny thing about glass ceilings: They’re hard to see. Oh, it’s not hard to see that they exist–just scan the chemistry faculty at nearly any university commencement. Now, despite the difficulty in direct observation, major universities have undertaken the task of mapping the glass ceilings at their institutions and have begun dismantling them.

In January, nine major research universities jointly acknowledged unintended barriers to the advancement of women faculty. The group included presidents and provosts of some of the most respected schools in the country. Meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they committed to collecting quantitative data on faculty salaries, lab space and opportunities to move into university administration. They also agreed to interview female faculty about departmental climates and obstacles to advancement.

The organizers, wanting to keep the number of participants manageable, chose the original nine universities because they had research programs comparable to MIT’s. In addition to MIT, they included Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Michigan, Yale University, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania. Since January, the University of Arizona and Cornell University have asked to join the list.

Seven months since their pledge, most of the schools have completed the study phase, but are not quite ready to make recommendations or release the results. Most schools hope to release a public version of the results by the beginning of the 2002-2003 academic year. One reason the process is so lengthy is that interviewers guaranteed confidentiality and final documents must be scrubbed of information that might allow readers to identify individual faculty members.

Still, many schools can already point to significant progress.

Schools Report Some Progress, Take Steps to Correct Inequities

All the signers have established gender equity committees, if they weren’t already in place.

MIT, which kicked off the current round of introspection with a 1999 study, boasts the appointment in early August of Susan Lindquist to lead The Whitehead Institute, perhaps the nation’s premier institute of genetic research. Lindquist is one of seven new, top-level women administrators in science and engineering.

Princeton has named a new female provost, Amy Gutmann, and a new woman president in Shirley Tilghman, a geneticist who was endorsed unanimously by the search committee and welcomed enthusiastically by the school.

The University of California, though not party to the nine presidents’ pledge, just completed a system-wide audit of hiring practices, requested by California state Sen. Jackie Speier, a San Francisco Democrat. The news was not great: Women constitute 23 percent of new hires throughout the University of California system, although 43 percent of new doctorates awarded nationwide in 1999 were female.

Still, the study was timely. Seven thousand new professors will join the University of California system in the next 10 years and audit recommendations could dramatically improve the proportion of women hired.

Specific suggestions included hiring more faculty at the assistant professor level, where the pool of women candidates is larger, and reshaping hiring committees to include women. Now, they are composed mainly of senior faculty, which means they are often all-male.

At a hearing on the audit’s recommendations, Chancellor M.R.C. “Marci” Greenwood of University of California, Santa Cruz, described a curriculum initiative to provide more interdisciplinary opportunities, in an effort to bring in more women professors and to bolster interest in science among students.

After the University of California at Davis campus reassessed its hiring process and made a clear statement of priorities, the proportion of new female hires jumped from 17 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2000. Hiring for people of color also increased, from 19 percent in 1999 to 27 percent in 2000.

Still to Come: Addressing Root Causes of Bias

Administrators and faculty hope that, once completed, the detailed studies they committed to at MIT will help them build solutions into the system, rather than just fix problems after the fact.

Nancy Hopkins, the biologist who pressed for MIT’s earlier studies, says: “Fixing inequities, that’s easy. But how do you really address the problem?”

One approach is to provide some financial incentive. An anonymous $20 million gift to Stanford University will support recruitment and retention of women in science and engineering. Patricia Jones, a Stanford immunologist and vice provost for faculty development, says a portion of the money will help current women faculty “get whatever they need to stay at Stanford,” whether that means support for postdoctoral research, more lab space or better child care.

UM Professor Abigail StewartThe National Science Foundation also is making funding available to institutions that wish to remake their academic cultures to be more welcoming to women. Isolation and marginalization of women in the hard sciences and engineering are repeatedly cited as reasons that smart, motivated women move on to different work.

Rather than just providing money designated for women candidates, as the past foundation programs have done, a new program, dubbed ADVANCE, provides competitive grants that will help recipient universities to collect data on their current practices, make creative attempts at institutional transformation and find out which practices really work to attract and retain women in the sciences.

“In the end, we’ll want to disseminate best practices beyond the institutions that were funded,” says Deborah Crawford, senior staff associate at the National Science Foundation.

The $20 million pool of funds will be divided among 5 to 10 programs out of about 75 proposals. The process of writing the proposals, thinking about how to transform entrenched practices, may itself be salutary.

Michigan’s proposal ranges from low-threat focus groups to more elaborate theatrical and role-playing presentations. It includes interventions that require big bucks and some that can be done on a shoestring. Even if Michigan doesn’t get funded, the university has committed a full-time researcher to the project and will be able to implement some of the ideas it proposed.

“It did help concentrate the mind,” says Abigail Stewart, the University of Michigan psychologist who organized that school’s proposal and who also is director of the university’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. “It forced us to a deadline, to a certain kind of coherence, and having done that does have a kind of committing influence.”

Martha Downs is a free-lance science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For more information:

University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender:

National Science Foundation ADVANCE Program:

Report: “Balancing the Equation: Where are Women and Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology?” National Council for Research on Women:

University of California hiring audit:

Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development:

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