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UNL uses ADVANCE-Nebraska to attract more women to STEM fields

  • Jacy Marmaduke
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Mary Anne Holmes can summarize the necessity for women in the STEM fields in a sentence: Diversity equals excellence.

But the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has yet to achieve diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, according to Holmes, a professor of practice in geosciences. Women make up about 25 to 30 percent of the mathematics and bioscience department faculties, but the numbers only decrease from there. Departments like biochemistry and geosciences have less than 25 percent female staff. And some departments, like construction management, have no female faculty members at all.

That's where ADVANCE-Nebraska comes in.

The National Science Foundation gave UNL a five-year institutional transformation grant in 2008 to promote the integration of women in STEM field faculty positions through research, workshops and altered hiring practices.

Time is almost up for ADVANCE-Nebraska, which aims to bring more women into stable tenure-track positions at UNL. Holmes, a co-principal investigator for the program, said its success is self-evident. Part of the program's strategy includes the dual career program, an incentive to hire the qualified STEM field partners of new female faculty members. Program administrators planned to hire eight such couples during the grant period, and they've already hired 11.

"Birds of a feather flock together – brilliant scientists tend to marry other brilliant scientists," Holmes said. "So usually when a pair comes, they're both an asset to Nebraska."

The next step is to change hiring practices. Currently, the school places ads for open positions in academic journals, but Holmes said women don't generally seek jobs that way – they prefer to use networking and word-of-mouth to find positions.

"To attract more women to the faculty, you have to change the way you're doing things, because for the previous two centuries, you were doing things a certain way and it wasn't attracting women," Holmes said. "And change is hard."

The program also must combat implicit bias, or the tendency to preference male candidates over female candidates in the hiring process.

"If we say the word scientist, the first thing that pops into most people's heads is a white guy in a white lab coat," Holmes said. "So when we're looking at applications for our next colleague, we have a picture in our minds of what or next colleague is going to look like."

Concetta DiRusso, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, chairs a faculty committee that addresses implicit bias. She said women are essential to STEM fields for reasons greater than diversity.

"Women are the major consumers in this country," DiRusso said. "Consumers drive the economy because they drive what's being purchased. So you can't leave women behind. You've got to meet their needs and cater to their interests. The more women we have in positions of leadership, the more opportunity is apparent to those that are younger."

Holmes and DiRusso cited increases in women graduating with degrees in the STEM fields, but they said those increases haven't been met with increases in female faculty members. In some fields, like veterinary science, women make up the majority of students while men make up a heavy majority of the faculty. That's a detriment for young females in search of role models, said DiRusso.

"Women tend to go toward things that are more nurturing and social — that's always been the excuse as to why they concentrate in the biological sciences over the physical sciences," DiRusso said. "But if their role models changed, they would change with it."

Regardless of hiring practices, Holmes and DiRusso said conditions are difficult for women in STEM faculty positions, especially those who are the only female members of their departments. For this reason, the ADVANCE program supports mentorship programs and puts on professional development workshops to assist new faculty members in job responsibilities like serving on committees and writing grant proposals.

"You get out of school and nobody teaches you that stuff," Holmes said. "You learn your science really well, but you don't learn about being a faculty member."

The million-dollar question, according to Holmes and DiRusso, is how UNL will continue progress once the grant ends in 2013. While the positions of female faculty members hired over the period will be safe, funding for research and workshops could be in jeopardy. But Holmes said she's seen support for the program throughout STEM departments because of benefits that transverse gender lines.

"All these better practices — for searching for new faculty, for having more people at the table and improving teaching methods — they're better for everybody," Holmes said. "You start with this target of making it better for women, but then it just ends up being better for everybody."

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