Leading the Way to a Better Academic Atmosphere for Women STEM Faculty

By Janice Voltzow, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, The University of Scranton

Dr. Janice Voltzow (Photo by The University of Scranton)

Dr. Janice Voltzow (Photo by The University of Scranton)

Women are underrepresented in almost all fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Across disciplines, female faculty report problems with respect, isolation and balancing the responsibilities of work and family that can limit career success. Compounding the problem at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) is the difficulty of retaining STEM women faculty, who typically carry large teaching and advising loads and are often the only females in their departments.

Most research about what enhances or inhibits career success for STEM women faculty has been gathered from studies at larger, research-intensive universities where faculty operate within distinctly different circumstances. Whether private or public, PUIs are often characterized by faculty governance, high expectations of service, an emphasis on teaching with small classes and low student-faculty ratios, and small departments with few, if any, female colleagues in their STEM departments. Thus, PUIs provide specific career opportunities and challenges for women faculty members. 

These unique challenges have led to a fascinating project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Four women faculty in STEM at The University of Scranton are part of a project, whose principal investigator, Joanne Smieja, Ph.D., is professor of chemistry at Gonzaga University. All four co-investigators are also from Jesuit institutions, including Graciela Lacueva, Ph.D. of John Carroll University; Roberta Sabin, Ph.D. of Loyola University Maryland; Kathy Zhong, Ph.D. of University of Detroit Mercy; and myself from The University of Scranton. The group received a grant for $600,000 over five years from NSF to develop peer networking to promote professional development for STEM women faculty at PUIs. 

The project's backbone and the subject of its inquiry is peer networking, long believed to be a powerful tool for supporting all kinds of professionals, especially faculty. Peer mentoring and networking offer access to information and resources that encourage career advancement. Moreover, these associations facilitate opportunities to improve the status, effectiveness and visibility of a faculty member through relationships with new colleagues, shared knowledge about institutional cultures, and raised awareness of innovative projects and new challenges. The entire project, called ASAP ADVANCE, is an experiment on the impact of networking on the careers of the participants. Ultimately, the results of the study will be used to help guide future opportunities for networking for STEM women faculty and identify ways of promoting and retaining them.

The project includes 70 tenured or tenure-track women from 28 PUIs across the country. At the heart of the networking project is a system of “alliances.” Each alliance consists of four to six women who are in the same or similar STEM discipline at a similar stage of their career, designated early, mid or senior. The women within an alliance meet with each other via videoconference at least once a month. Alliance members also meet in person once a year over the course of the four-year project. Since launching the study in 2012, investigators have concluded that by far the most popular networking tool is the in-person meeting. 

In addition, networking groups have been set up based on discipline and career level. The networks communicate through email and listservs, which provide ways for members to share opportunities for funding and conferences, as well as articles about women in the sciences. Discussions cover a wide range of topics: What factors have been helpful across the faculty’s career? How did they get to where they are? What opportunities or challenges have they met as they advanced in their careers? Who are their role models? Why choose their selected discipline?

Horizontal networks allow women across disciplines to discuss their successes and challenges as faculty members. Each horizontal network consists of women at similar career levels. A vertical network is composed of women in similar disciplines, but different career levels. There are five vertical networks: biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics/engineering and engineering/computer science. These networks permit the women to focus on aspects of their career specific to their discipline. Networking also provides more junior faculty (usually assistant professors) the opportunity to seek advice about advancement from more senior women (usually associate or full professors).

One encouraging result of ASAP ADVANCE is that students are directly benefiting from the networking. For example, members of the Early-Career Math Alliance are collaborating on an exploratory study to determine whether emulating professional mathematical journal writing (content, mathematics literacy) improves students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics, attitudes toward mathematics, and writing ability in mathematics. This study should lead to publishable results.

In another example, one network chemist recently visited a network colleague at a different institution so that she could learn specific laboratory techniques. She will incorporate these techniques into inquiry-based exercises for her biochemistry laboratory.

The benefits of supportive colleagues to faculty and their students are coming into focus. Networking has long been acknowledged, at least on an informal basis, to play a vital if under-appreciated role in career development. ASAP ADVANCE is finding that it is an even more crucial ingredient for career success and satisfaction for women in STEM.