February 14, 2012

Cornell Recruits Female Professors in STEM Fields

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This article is the first in a series about hiring initiatives and faculty renewal around the University.

Prof. Christine Ann Shoemaker, civil and environmental engineering, said that when she first came to Cornell 30 years ago, there were hardly any other female faculty or female students in the College of Engineering.

“When I first came here, I felt apologetic that I was a woman on the faculty,” said Shoemaker, the first woman to receive tenure in the engineering college. “I had all these complications, like child care, that the men didn’t have.”Shoemaker said that, since she arrived, efforts to reduce gender disparity in the engineering and science fields at the University have created a dramatically different atmosphere for women in the field.“It’s just like night and day,” she said.As the University prepares to replace retiring faculty through a massive renewal initiative, it will continue to recruit women in STEM fields — which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics — through its ADVANCE program, a $3.3 million effort that has brought 70 new female professors to Cornell in the last five years.Through ADVANCE, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, administrators sought to increase the number of women faculty to 20 percent in each of Cornell’s science and engineering departments by 2011.When the program was launched in 2006, 31 of 51 University departments fell below the 20 percent mark. In 2011, however, after hiring 70 new female faculty over five years, the University has lowered this number to 25 departments. Fifteen of these entered as senior, tenured professors, according to Yael Levitte, executive director of CU-ADVANCE.“The program has been enormously successful in enhancing the gender diversity of our faculty and in creating programs that will enhance the recruitment and success of faculty,” said Provost Kent Fuchs, who was named the “principal investigator” behind the project.Although the ADVANCE grant gave departments short-term funds for hiring, its biggest impact stemmed from non-monetary support, according to John Siliciano ’75, senior vice provost for academic affairs. Funding for the program allowed department chairs to hold workshops educating junior female faculty about “pitfalls” in the tenure process and also educated search committees about biases that can arise in hiring decisions, Siliciano said.“What it was trying to get faculty to think about was unconscious biases that they can bring to recruitment,” Siliciano said. “If physics or chemistry is looking for new applications, in the position of sorting through and deciding who they want to shortlist, there are a number of overt biases … as well as subtler, unconscious dynamics in the search committee that can affect the effectiveness of the recruitment process in hiring.”For instance, Siliciano said, studies have shown that presenting two resumes that are identical except for the name of the applicant results in “a differential evaluation at the margin, which reflects a simple, unconscious bias in evaluation.”In addition to addressing underlying biases that hinder recruiting female faculty in STEM, ADVANCE provides support for career advancement that created an “incredibly different” atmosphere for women at Cornell, professors in engineering said.Shoemaker, as well as other female faculty, participated in a number of ADVANCE luncheons and workshops that she said were aimed at helping women learn how to advance their professional careers. There, they also learned how to mentor graduate students in the field, she said.

Levitte echoed Shoemaker’s sentiments, saying, the program “improved the climate significantly.”

“It improved women’s perception of their ability to navigate the unwritten rules of the University, their perception of the administration’s support for them and their overall satisfaction,” she said.

Levitte said that aspiring female academics in the sciences and engineering face several challenges.

Compared to professors in the humanities, women in the sciences have to undergo several years of post-doctorate training before securing a tenure-track job — more than in the humanities, Levitte said. For those with families, this entails short-term moves with adverse effects on the job prospects of their spouses.

In addition, Levitte said that, “Scientists who must be physically present at a laboratory are often restricted by the timing constraints of the experiments they run, much more so than social scientists and humanists whose hours can be more flexible.”

Another difficulty women in STEM face is that federal funding agencies in the U.S. do not cover parental leaves for post-doctorate researchers. If a woman hired on grant funding takes parental leave, the institution must cover the cost of her replacements; as a consequence, Levitte said, this may factor into hiring decisions by senior researchers.

“Changing federal funding policies may go a long way to correct this, and some agencies abroad have legislated it,” she added.

Siliciano acknowledged that despite ADVANCE’s efforts, “You can’t rule out that some faculty retain unconscious or inappropriate concerns,” some of which may relate to discrimination against women raising children.Still, he said, the University prohibits faculty from asking potential hires about family plans during the search process.“That can be a code word for the old bias of not wanting to hire females because they may leave and have a family … so we prohibit [those] inquiries,” Siliciano said.

While Levitte said the tendency of STEM departments to be male-dominated reflects a national, not only institutional trend, she said Cornell must continue to work on reducing gender disparity in STEM and the social sciences. By serving as role models, a diverse faculty may have a trickledown effect on undergraduates aspiring to pursue the sciences.

“I think that the more young women see other women in the field, the more it could help retain [them] in their majors,” she said.

Original Author: Akane Otani