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U looks to ADVANCE women faculty in STEM

The University of Utah has made strides in advancing women faculty in the sciences in recent decades, yet the Beehive State’s flagship university still lags behind peer institutions when it comes to gender equity in science, technology, engineering and math, the fields collectively known as STEM. The challenges faced by women scientists are compounded by their additional identities, including being Women of Color and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community, who experience additional barriers as faculty members.

To build on the U’s current efforts supporting women from diverse backgrounds, especially Women of Color and queer women, the university is embarking on an institutional transformation project using a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation under its ADVANCE program, devoted to enhancing the role of women in the nation’s STEM workforce. The grant will support both research and implementation of campus-wide reforms designed to lower impediments to success. It will also be the first ADVANCE grant focused specifically on LGBTQ+ and Women of Color—and inclusive of both tenure-line and career-line faculty.

“We all benefit from just, peaceful and equitable societies, but that is sometimes hard for people to swallow and too abstract,” said Claudia Geist, sociology professor and interim gender studies chair and co-principal investigator on the five-year grant. “Why this matters is that if the United States wants to be a leader in STEM, and actually tackle the big change global challenges we’re facing, we need the best possible people to do their best possible work. And by systematically making life harder on people based on characteristics that have nothing to do with their scientific capabilities is an inefficient way to operate.”

U President Taylor Randall, who holds a faculty of appointment in the School of Accounting, is the grant’s principal investigator (PI), demonstrating the university’s commitment to the project at the highest levels of leadership.

“As one of the nation’s leading research universities, we need to invest more in the success of a diverse STEM workforce,” said Randall. “Solutions to societal problems need to come from individuals spanning all segments of society. Leaving communities out of the equation puts us at a distinct disadvantage.”

The project is formally titled “ADVANCE IT: University of Utah IC Studios—Systemic Institutional Change Through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation.”

Joining Geist on the interdisciplinary team of co-PIs are geology professor Brenda Bowen, who directs the Global Change and Sustainability Center; Ramón Barthelemy, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Myra Washington, assistant vice president for faculty equity and diversity. Mercedes Ward, an associate director of social impact within the Office of the Vice President for Research, rounds out the senior personnel team.

According to data compiled for the grant, faculty at the lower campus’s four STEM colleges is 72% male and 28% female, of 734 tenure-line and career-line professors. Just 5.7% are Women of Color and no data are currently collected on queer women. While lopsided, these numbers are an improvement since 2011, when just 22.5% were women, but the rate of progress remains slow.

“Utah [as a state] ranks last in the country when it comes to gender equity,” Bowen said. “There’s only one way to go.”

Over the five-year course of the grant, the U will convene three “institutional change,” or IC, studios, each devoted to a major area of focus: faculty communities, led by Washington; workload equity, led by Bowen; and collaborative structures for ongoing systemic change, led by Ward.

“Each of these studios works through a set of processes in year one,” Bowen said. “And then year two, you start back at the beginning and you reevaluate what worked, what did we learn, where are we now? So we work through this cycle, through this five years of the project.”

A major research question explores social and professional networks built by women STEM faculty, both tenure-line and career-line, who have succeeded at the Utah campus.

“How do they build and navigate their professional networks? And how does that lead to career success?” said Barthelemy, who will lead the research component of the project. “So the idea is how do we learn from the positive experiences that people have on campus in order to build that into policy to make more positive experiences for other people that are coming to campus, and to understand how we can make the campus a better place.”

Barthelemy also intends to explore what factors influence the retention of women faculty at the University of Utah.

“Even when folks are coming to campus that are coming from diverse backgrounds, oftentimes they’re not finding their definition of success in order to actually stay,” he said. “We want to understand not only what are the factors and things that might be leading someone to leave, but most importantly, we really want to understand how people are finding success here. And if they’re not finding success, then that allows us to think about ways that we can change policy in order to get people to where they need to be.”

Getting in the way of progress is the university’s decentralized nature where faculty culture is maintained within “deeply siloed” colleges and departments, according to the grant.

“There is a need to cultivate a campus-wide culture that prioritizes the concerns of minoritized populations and adopts an intersectional lens to intentionally address both how and why STEM faculty are perpetually minoritized,” the grant states. “To address the root causes of the systemic problems identified—especially the fact that minoritized faculty in STEM feel so dissatisfied and are less likely to be retained at UU—fundamental changes are required at an institutional level.”

As an alternative to top-down mandates, which tend to alienate stakeholders, the project proposes applying “problem-driven iterative adaption,” an approach developed for building state capability, to drive this desired change.

“In a context like the University of Utah, which is a highly decentralized institution where every college is a bit different—they have different policies and different things going on—it’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all solution,” Ward said. “So we wanted to recognize and acknowledge that characteristic of the institution and utilize a methodology that has been shown to be effective at coming up with well-tailored solutions for particular contexts and places and cultures and people. And so it’s taking that idea and trying to test it, whether it’s going to work to drive institutional change for gender equity at the University of Utah.”

The main photo depicts the team leading the University of Utah’s ADVANCE IT project which aims to support women faculty in scientific fields. Pictured left to right are Mercedes Ward, associate director of social impact within the Office of the Vice President for Research, geology professor Brenda Bowen, Vice President for Research Erin Rothwell, sociology professor Claudia Geist, U President Taylor Randall, Vice President for Faculty Equity and Diversity Myra Washington and physics professor Ramón Barthelemy. Credit: Harriet Richardson