SEAS looks to narrow gender gap in faculty

The School of Engineering and Applied Science is looking to beat the odds after researchers reported in the journal “Science” this month that it would take 100 years to close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculty.

Nationwide, about 27 percent of faculty in STEM subjects are women and it could take a century before that population reaches 50 percent, the Feb. 17 report found. Researchers said universities have hired female STEM faculty only incrementally over the past decade because of social expectations for women in the field and the obstacles of starting a family while fighting for tenure.

As the engineering school has gone on a hiring spree in the last few years, the University’s first vice provost for diversity and inclusion said targeting female candidates is the first step to reversing the trend.

Of the 80 professors in the engineering school this year, 10 are women – the widest gap of any school at GW. Three of the five department chairs in the engineering school are female.

“If we’re comparing ourselves to other institutions, we’re doing pretty well, but not as well as we want to,” Terri Reed, GW’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, said.

Reed said all six of this year’s searches for faculty in the engineering school have had at least one female candidate in an effort to start balancing the number of female and male faculty members in the school.

The Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which University President Steven Knapp created in 2010, charged Reed with diversifying the faculty as one of five goals.

Engineering school dean David Dolling asked Reed to meet with all of his department heads in November to discuss diversity hiring practices, she said.

The University also put together an application to a $5 million National Science Foundation grant to help recruit and retain women in STEM fields. Reed said GW will hear back about the grant next month.

“Cultural change isn’t something that happens instantaneously,” Reed said. “I’m trying to be a champion and trying to hold the deans and department chairs accountable.”

Dolling declined to comment on the progress of the faculty searches, but said the school would pick the best candidate regardless of gender.

“I’m proud of the fact that there are women in all ranks of SEAS from assistant professors to an associate dean,” he said. “We strive to attract a diverse candidate pool. We hope, but can’t guarantee, that we will attract qualified female candidates.”

The engineering school has undergone a hiring boom in recent years, as the program seeks to raise its profile and boost its research portfolio. The school hired 32 faculty members the last two academic years and has initiated searches for six faculty members this year.

To bring in younger professors with blooming research credentials, the school offered buyout packages to the 39 faculty members – half of the school’s full-time faculty – in December 2009. Six professors accepted the buyout.

In their report, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler highlighted several challenges universities have faced with holding onto women faculty in STEM fields. Kaminksi is a mechanical engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Geisler is a dean of faculty at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

“Women don’t want to fight the tenure clock and the biological clock at the same time. Those who try to care for young children at the same time as striving for tenure are under intense pressure,” Kaminski said.

Kim Roddis, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department, said she had to choose between starting a family and attaining tenure when she taught at University of Kansas School of Engineering in the early 1990s.

“If I hadn’t been back on the eleventh day after I had my daughter, I could have been fired,” she said.

Roddis later was the first woman to attain tenure at the school.

The gender gap persists not because women are “less capable than men,” but because of social expectations, Shelly Heller, associate provost for the Mount Vernon Campus and a computer science professor in the engineering school, said.

The engineering school’s enrollment, 36 percent of which is female, lies above the national average for gender representation.

“In middle school or high school, girls are not encouraged to take the science and math courses that prepare them for an academic degree in the areas in college and beyond,” Heller said. “If there are not many women in your class, you are often the only woman on your team. It is not a very welcoming environment.”

Lauren French contributed to this report

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