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Gonzaga and Professor Smieja Aim to Spur Cultural Shift to Advance More Women in STEM Fields

Posted on October 18, 2011 in: @Gonzaga, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, Feature Stories, Service, Students, video


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$598,611 National Science Foundation Grant
to Create Web of Women Faculty Alliances

By Tara Schmidt and Peter Tormey

SPOKANE, Wash. – Joanne Smieja, Gonzaga University professor of chemistry and biochemistry, understands the difficulties women face in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. With a $598,611 grant from the National Science Foundation, Smieja will lead a nationwide web of women faculty from undergraduate institutions aiming to change the current culture in STEM fields.

This five-year project involves creation of a mentoring network comprised of 70 women STEM faculty from 12 undergraduate schools nationwide. The network could influence more than 26,000 female undergraduates at the 12 participating institutions. Photo by Jennifer Raudebaugh.

Smieja’s five-year project involves creation of a mentoring network comprised of 70 women STEM faculty from 12 undergraduate schools nationwide. The network will provide faculty peer-mentorship and cross-disciplinary support to encourage women faculty in STEM fields to succeed and advance their careers. Ultimately, the network is expected to encourage the entry of more women into STEM disciplines. By reducing isolation of the participants, and building leadership skills, the project will positively influence the 70 participants who, in turn, could influence more than 26,000 female undergraduates at the 12 participating institutions.

Through the project, Gonzaga aims to be an agent of cultural change. The project is an academic study, so the results will uncover some of the reasons for the historic underrepresentation of women in math- and science-based disciplines and will illustrate institutional practices that support women in STEM disciplines. In addition, the initiative is expected to increase research opportunities for participants, secure more recognition for their work, advance their careers, and improve their student-mentoring capabilities. Involving more women more deeply in STEM challenges is expected to yield greater synergy in problem-solving and innovation, widely viewed as critical to the nation’s ability to compete in the national and global economies.

The project will allow more experienced women STEM faculty to serve as “big sisters” to women who are less experienced in their careers. The higher-education network spanning the continental United States involves Gonzaga University, Willamette University (Salem, Ore.), Western Oregon University, Southern Oregon University, University of St. Thomas (Houston), Maryville University (St. Louis), Butler University (Indianapolis), Hope College (Holland, Mich.), University of Detroit Mercy, John Carroll University (Cleveland), University of Scranton (Pennsylvania), and Loyola University Maryland.

“The overall goal is to create a network using cyber technology between undergraduate institutions to allow women in more isolated departments to have an opportunity to interact with other women in STEM fields,” said Smieja, the principal investigator who applied for the grant.

An advisory board consisting of women leaders from the national organizations involved in the project – including the Council on Undergraduate Research, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Project Kaleidoscope – will help develop and maintain the network structure.

Social scientists will assess the networking/mentoring configuration, the intensity of participation, and the individual impact. To set a baseline for their study, scientists will survey participants before the project begins about their job satisfaction, and measure satisfaction again five years later. The evaluators also will test the effectiveness of the cyber network with feedback from participants, and assist in preparing and disseminating reports, presentations, and publications when the research is complete.

The project’s aim is to create a network of women supporting women in STEM fields to provide them with room to cultivate their careers and build important relationships leading to real opportunities. Participating women also will work to transform the culture of STEM disciplines to strengthen women’s voices in research and teaching.

Smieja estimates women occupy 15-35 percent of tenured or tenure-track STEM faculty positions at undergraduate institutions, depending on whether the discipline is a “life science” like biology, or a “physical science” like chemistry. A 2007 NSF study notes men outnumber women by 73 percent in all employment sectors for science and engineering.

“I was the first tenure-track woman hired in the chemistry department (at Gonzaga) and overall I have been happy with the path I chose but it has been difficult at times,” Smieja said. “I’m looking forward to building relationships with other women who have traveled down similar paths.”

Smieja was inspired to apply for the grant by a woman who took part in a similar, smaller-scale project.

“She was just so excited about the experience,” Smieja said. “Hopefully, through this project, Gonzaga will be recognized as a leading innovator working to reverse the historic under-representation of women in STEM-related disciplines and occupations. This work has the potential to stimulate new interdisciplinary research that could benefit business and industry.”

STEM disciplines are widely considered crucial to America’s ability to compete in the global economy, spurring calls to increase the number of students entering these fields and improve their pre-college skills. While girls and women have made tremendous gains in education and the workforce in the past half-century, that progress has been patchy. Some scientific and engineering disciplines remain overwhelmingly male, unable to loosen shackles responsible for the historical underrepresentation of women.

A 2010 research report by the American Association of University Women titled, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” notes a “critical moment when many young women turn away from a STEM career path” occurs in the transition from high school to college. While women constitute the majority of college students, first-year college men are twice as likely to pursue a STEM major than their female counterparts, the report notes.

Twenty-nine percent (nearly one-third) of all male freshmen, compared with 15 percent of all female freshmen, planned to major in a STEM field in 2006, according to the NSF. The gender gap in STEM fields grows wider when the biological sciences are excluded. Slightly more than one-fifth of freshmen males planned to major in engineering, computer science or the physical sciences, compared with 5 percent of freshmen females.

In the U.S. workforce, strong gains have been made by women in some STEM disciplines. Women have held a significant presence in the biological sciences dating to 1960 when they comprised about 27 percent of biologists. By 2000, women made up about 44 percent of the field. However, women made up a trifling 1 percent of engineers in 1960 and by 2000 comprised only 11 percent of engineers. While the increase is significant, women remain vastly underrepresented among working engineers and in many STEM fields, especially engineering and physics.

The 2010 AAUW report “Why So Few?” attributes the disparity between men and women in STEM fields to contributing social and environmental factors. Their findings are grouped into the following areas:

  • Social and environmental factors shaping girls’ achievements and interest in math and science;
  • The college environment; and
  • Continuing importance of bias, often at an unconscious level, blocking women’s entry to STEM fields.

 

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