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UNL attempts to bridge gender faculty ratio gap among STEM departments

  • Riley Johnson
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Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln increased the number of female faculty members since 2009 and set a course to improve female faculty culture at UNL, according to a university professor.

Professor Mary Ann Holmes directs the university's five-year, $3.8 million ADVANCE-Nebraska grant responsible for changes in STEM personnel at UNL.

Since UNL received the National Science Foundation grant two years ago, the university has added 10 female faculty members to its STEM fields and increased the amount of female faculty position applicants. Holmes said that's a sign of change from a few years ago.

"I think a lot of chairs, heads and faculty felt that there was nothing they could really do to increase the number of women in their applicant pools," Holmes said. "And now they have strategies to do that."

ADVANCE-Nebraska provides departments with recruiting strategies, Holmes said. While she said the university has made strides in improving faculty equality on campus and in STEM fields, the journey is far from complete.

"We still have a long way to go," Holmes said. "We tend to hire men at the full professor rank in STEM, but we haven't hired any STEM women at that rank.

"We are making progress at the entry-level rank, but retention and recruiting to higher ranks is still a challenge."

In UNL's tenure and non-tenure track faculty population, men outnumber women 981 to 575, according to 2011 data from Institutional Research and Planning.

Inequality is most pronounced at the professor level, where 99 women have full professorships compared to 412 men.

One reason for the increase in new hires comes from the grant's focus on dual-career couples.

Nationally, 80 percent of women in STEM fields have a partner in academia, according to the ADVANCE-Nebraska website. So the university has adopted a dual career assistance policy, as an incentive for women in STEM fields to choose UNL. A female STEM field applicant's partner will receive assistance during the interview process to help with dual-career hires. Consistently, if someone in a STEM or other department had a female partner in a STEM field, this program would help the female STEM-field applicant.

Melanie Simpson, chair of the Chancellor's Commission on the Status of Women and an associate professor of biochemistry, commends grants work and the policy.

"Sometimes you take the approach that policy comes first and reality will bend to follow it," Simpson said.

With policies like the dual career assistance policy in place, the reality of gender-faculty inequality is one Simpson hopes to see addressed. But those addressing that reality said it doesn't come without challenge.

In a STEM field such as physics and astronomy, Simpson pointed to the disparity in the male-female faculty ratio as an obstacle to culture change. As of fall 2011, there are only three women in the 27-instructor department.

University data from 2009-2010 shows UNL has a higher percentage of women faculty than its Big Ten peers in STEM fields such as biological sciences, statistics and biochemistry, but the university lags its peers by as much as 16 percent in areas like physics and astronomy, chemistry and entomology.

With so few women in that department, potential applicants might be hesitant to even apply for department positions where there are few women, Simpson said.

Reality shapes perception, she said.

"If you perceive there are people like you thriving and surviving, then you feel like you can thrive and survive," Simpson said.

Simpson and her fellow female colleagues comprise roughly one-fourth of the 23-member biochemistry department, which she said is good, but not ideal.

Still the university's progress the past few years shows promise for the future, Simpson and Holmes say. They're hopeful the university can build on its forward momentum toward improving the culture for female faculty at UNL.


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