The only woman in the room

Leaks in the pipeline prevent many women from becoming faculty in the sciences.
Cummins engineers Shreyasee Kambale, Taya Upkes and Ashika Shrestha listen to one of their employees talk to the Society of Women Engineers on Monday evening at Tate Laboratory. Cummins is a sponsor of the Society of Women Engineers.
By
  • Bridget Bennett
December 06, 2012

Rachel Levine is torn.

In a few years, she’ll receive her doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota and face the same decision as tens of thousands of science, technology, engineering and math graduate students across the nation: industry or academia?

As a professor, Levine would be able to conduct research she cares about, like improving the effectiveness of cancer drugs. But at a university, she would spend a lot of her time applying for grants to fund it. If she chooses to do research for a company, funding wouldn’t be an issue, but she wouldn’t be able to choose what she studies.

Levine is part of a growing number of women in science who are following the educational pipeline to the doctoral level.

But overwhelmingly, these women aren’t choosing academia.

Many call this a “leaky pipeline,” where women instead choose to go into industry. While the reasons for this vary from person to person, many cite the time commitment, stress and isolation of becoming a female professor in the sciences as deterrents.

The number of women studying STEM fields has gradually grown over past decades, but the percentage of women in most engineering and physical science fields is still relatively small. Nationally, 22 percent of undergraduates seeking degrees in engineering or physical sciences are women.

University of Minnesota officials are concerned that this limited number of women in the engineering and physical sciences won’t make it through the pipeline to faculty positions.

Wayne Gladfelter, associate dean of academic affairs for CSE, said the school is actively trying to recruit and hire more female faculty.

But it’s not that easy.

The college has offered faculty positions to 14 women in the past three years, but only half of them accepted.

Being the only woman

Susan Mantell first came to the University in 1991. At the time, she was the only female faculty member in the mechanical engineering department.

Levine’s experience won’t be very different if she chooses academia — more than two decades after accepting her position, Mantell is still one of only four women in her department.

“Sometimes I forget about it, but it’s always there,” Mantell said. “I’m sitting in a room, and I look out, and I realize I’m the only woman.”

Of the 406 faculty members in the College of Science and Engineering, 42 are women, meaning most CSE students will only encounter a few female professors during their time at the University.

Mechanical engineering junior Mattie Buezis hasn’t had any female engineering professors but said she wishes she did.

“It’d be nice,” she said. “It’s not something that I really noticed before.”

Some argue that STEM fields need to attract enough women studying at the undergraduate and graduate levels to tip the scales toward more female faculty members.

In life sciences, there has been a massive upsurge in female students — nationally, 58 percent of students in the field are women. Consequently, the number of women faculty in the life sciences is slowly increasing, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

But this increase isn’t occurring in the physical sciences and engineering because these fields tend to attract fewer female students. In the class of 2012, less than 21 percent of CSE bachelor’s degree recipients were women.

CSE is different from most engineering schools in the country because it also offers degrees in the physical sciences, like chemistry and physics. The national average of women who received bachelor’s degrees in these fields in 2010 was about 22 percent.

But the balance between actively recruiting women and making it easier for them to be hired can be a delicate one.

College of Biological Sciences professor Marlene Zuk warned against schools trying to achieve an equal ratio of male and female faculty members. She said setting these types of quotas could make women feel like they were hired for their gender rather than their skill or experience.

“There is this pervasive myth that women or minorities have a much easier time getting a job,” she said. “It really does astound me how people don’t realize how insulting that is.”

 

‘Nobody’s jumping up and down’

Long after most of his colleagues had gone home, Gladfelter reviewed faculty data in his office, dissatisfied with what he saw.

“Nobody’s jumping up and down saying we’ve succeeded at this stage,” Gladfelter said. “This is a trend that we hope will continue.”

The college has increased the number of female faculty by six to 42 since Gladfelter became associate dean in 2007 and is always looking to hire more, he said.

The faculty hiring process is complicated. A typical CSE faculty position has hundreds of applicants, three-quarters of which are eliminated at face value in the first round.

A search committee then combs through the remaining applications and selects several for on-campus interviews. Research shows that during this process of narrowing candidates, a subconscious bias can surface.

A Yale University study published in September found that unconscious hiring biases favoring male applicants can be found in both men and women.

The researchers sent out identical job applications, some with male names and others with female. They found that the hypothetical male candidate was more likely to be hired, paid more and offered mentorship.

Gladfelter said hiring search committees in CSE are taught how to combat bias of any kind. Instead of asking open-ended questions about candidates, they ask questions about the candidates’ research interests or past work, he said.

There is usually at least one woman on each search committee, Gladfelter said. In addition, CSE requires that there be at least one woman among those chosen for every round of on-campus interviews, preferably two.

But Gladfelter said the most significant effort in CSE is the ability for committees to hire two faculty members at a time. If one of the top-two candidates is a woman and there is difficulty deciding between them, the college can hire both.

The next hurdle is getting women to accept the offer.

According to Gladfelter, most potential faculty members decline because their spouses can’t find work in the area. At the University, this is informally coined the “two-body problem.”

Mantell said a big part of why she applied for a faculty position at the University was because it was one of the schools where her husband got into graduate school.

“If we can’t figure out something for the husband,” computer science professor Victoria Interrante said, “then they just go someplace where they can both find something.”

 

A history of discrimination

In the early 2000s, Christy Haynes told her post-doctoral adviser that she was accepting a faculty position in the University’s chemistry department.

He was horrified.

He told her that in the past that department had a bad reputation for its treatment of female faculty members.

In 1980, the University settled a class-action lawsuit accusing it of systematically denying tenure to and discriminating against women. Shyamala Rajender, the woman who filed the suit, was a pre-tenured faculty member in the chemistry department.

The University paid Rajender $100,000 and her attorneys $1.5 million. To prevent future discrimination, the Rajender Consent Decree was drafted, creating guidelines for salary increases and hiring and promotion of female faculty — including the 1,300 women who had joined the suit.

Today, the chemistry department has the highest number of women faculty in CSE and is one of few departments at the University to have a room for breast-feeding mothers.

But pay inequity is still a major concern. Of the 50-highest paid faculty in CSE, two are women.

The Women’s Faculty Cabinet presented a report on the pay inequity between male and female faculty at the University last spring, and departments are working on figuring out how to fix it.

Chemistry professor Christopher Cramer said pay inequity is an issue that continuously needs to be addressed.

“I’m glad that is actually being discussed and pursued,” he said, “It shows a commitment to equity.”

Haynes said overall the culture at the University is positive, but some societal stigmas are still too strong to overcome.

She said she “felt like a spectacle” during her first pregnancy. At the time, she was the only pre-tenured professor who was pregnant in her department, and people weren’t used to seeing it.

Loren Terveen, a computer science professor, said departments were less sensitive to family issues in the past and that this stereotype persists today.

“Being so rigid is not a good strategy to get outstanding faculty in general,” he said, “and maybe there’s a differential effect on women.”

Haynes said she felt judged by people who might question whether she was serious about her career, and she worked even harder to show that she could be both a mother and professor.

She is still nursing her second child, whom she had a year ago. Haynes said it’s challenging since few women share her experience.

“It can be really lonely,” she said.

Levine said her experience at the University has been positive, save one professor who made her feel uncomfortable.

“I felt like he was kind of looking down on me because I was a woman,” she said. “But it’s few and far between.”

Mechanical engineering senior Erin Lemke said most men in her classes don’t treat her differently but that she senses subtle biases every once in a while when doing group work. Men sometimes assume that she’ll take a leadership role in organizing and communicating, she said.

“They might not let you do as much of the technical work, or they’ll always want to check your work or verify it,” she said. “It might be because I’m female, but it also could just be that that’s the way they are, and they don’t trust other people to do the work.”

What corks the leaks

Mantell joined a women’s rugby team when she was a freshman in college because she thought it sounded fun.

Sally Ride was on that team.

Mantell said Ride, who later became the first American woman to travel to space, inspired her to go into mechanical engineering.

After getting her bachelor’s degree, Mantell went on to work in industry, where she met a woman who had a doctoral in material science.

“I think the one key piece might be knowing another woman,” she said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t known someone and maybe because it was another woman I felt comfortable asking questions.”

Studies show women who have this kind of support group tend to stay in the pipeline longer. A 2005 study found that women tend to seek more mentors than men for guidance and support.

“It’s easier to think you could,” Zuk said, “if you see someone like you.”

Levine is part of a group of women graduate engineering students that invites a guest speaker to have lunch every month.

It’s one of the many support groups for women in science at the University.

CSE sponsors pizza lunches for female faculty members to foster a more supportive community.

Interrante and Haynes are both on the Women’s Faculty Cabinet, which makes recommendations to the administration to improve the female faculty experience.

Lemke has been part of the Society of Women Engineers, an undergraduate group, since she came to the University four years ago. She said it has been crucial to her success.

“It’s really kept me in engineering,” she said, “just having that support.”

This support, combined with mentors propelling women to the next level of academia, is how many of the female faculty in CSE said they got where they are today.

Interrante said her first mentor was her brother, also a computer science major, who brought home an early computer game that she loved playing.

For Haynes, it was her high school chemistry teacher who simply told her she was good at chemistry.

“Having a teacher say that,” she said, “I think I just believed him. He said I’m good at this — I must be good at it. It was enough to get me invested in chemistry.”

Entering the pipeline

Before coming to the University’s STEM Readiness program, high school junior Shelby Hunter had never seen a woman in a math or science career.

A group of 26 Twin Cities high school juniors visited the University on Wednesday to tour a biomedical engineering lab, meet with academic advisers and ask questions of CSE mentors and students.

Hunter said her interest in science began last year when she took biology. Her teacher taught in an engaging way that made science seem more interesting, she said.

Now, Hunter said she thinks about the applications of science everywhere, like when she goes to the doctor.

“I could be the person behind this,” she said, “who gives them the tools.”

Many factors determine whether a woman stays in the sciences pipeline, and they can begin taking effect when she is young.

CSE, the University and faculty sponsor a number of outreach events that aim to get young children interested in science and engineering.

Cramer, the chemistry professor, said the unfamiliarity and disinterest in science and engineering is a societal issue.

“If you look on TV and you ask, ‘What percentage of the engineers are women?’ It’s a bigger problem than the University alone can attack,” he said.

Having just one or two role models for women to look up to in the sciences is a start, Haynes said, but it doesn’t make it seem realistic to students that they can do it, too.

“You need more than one,” she said. “You need to start to get enough so that people start to say there’s a trend there.”

Mantell said one of the problems with this unfamiliarity is that children don’t know what engineers can accomplish.

Women especially, she said, need to see what the degree can do to help people, which is why so many women have turned to life sciences.

For Levine, chemical engineering clicked for her when she took an introductory class as an undergraduate.

“It’s not just writing down a bunch of equations and solving math problems,” she said. “It was, ‘When I get done with these four years, what am I going to do? I’ll be solving these real problems and helping people.’”

Hunter said she hopes next time she visits the University she’ll get to see more hands-on labs doing research that can make a difference.

She said she thinks it’s cool to see women doing math and science. Of the 11 campus guides for the readiness program that day, eight were women.

“It kind of gives us an open door,” she said.

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