ADVANCING WOMEN: (l to r) Jennifer Yukna, PhD; Kristin Bruzzini, PhD; Kyra Krakos, PhD; Jinfeng Wei, PhD; Candace Chambers Colbeck, PhD; and Min Deng, PhD.

Major Role Models

Female math and science professors gain professional and personal support through a National Science Foundation program

by Becky Mollenkamp

Reading time: 6 minutes

magcover-150While pursuing a doctorate in mathematics in the 1980s, Min Deng, PhD, was often the lone female in her classes, which were taught mostly by male professors. When she began teaching university classes in 1993, she was one of few women among her colleagues and students.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the view has changed—but not as significantly as she would hope. Today, Deng is director of the mathematics and actuarial sciences department at Maryville University, where two of five colleagues in the program are women and classes are dotted with female students.

“The gap between males and females is getting smaller,” Deng says. “I hope I’m an example for women that encourages them into mathematics and sciences.”

Despite dramatic change over the last three decades, women have yet to achieve equality in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Although more women than men graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, men earn a higher proportion of degrees in many STEM disciplines. Across the country, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF), women earn fewer doctorates in mathematics, physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering than men by margins ranging from 20 to 30 percent and account for less than 25 percent of all full-time STEM professors.

To boost those numbers, NSF created the ADVANCE grant in 2001. Awarded to higher education institutions, the five-year grants aim to increase the number of women in academic science and engineering careers. Maryville University, along with 10 other schools, received an ADVANCE grant in 2012.

“This grant seeks not to study the problem, but to address it by creating a networking and mentoring web for 75 female faculty members across the United States,” says Candace Chambers Colbeck, PhD, professor of chemistry. Although not a current participant in the program, Colbeck helped to facilitate the University’s grant application. At the time, Maryville was the only school with full participation of all eligible faculty members. Since then, more women have been hired as STEM faculty at Maryville.

Why Does a Gap Exist in STEM Fields?

Program participants are placed in small peer groups with women at similar points in their careers (assistant, associate, or full professors). These horizontal groups have monthly teleconference meetings and often communicate via email. Each woman is also part of a larger vertical group of professors at all levels in the same area of study. They meet annually, during a national conference.

The structure attempts to tackle the complex reasons a gap exists for women in STEM fields. Isolation is one example of such obstacles.

Because women in math and science classrooms are typically the minority, a one-dimensional viewpoint is created—from a male perspective—on how to navigate a STEM career path.

“What happens with women who are alone is they get discouraged, and if they don’t have a resource to get advice from or share ideas with, they tend to leave academics and move on to something else,” says Kristen Bruzzini, PhD, associate professor of biology and director of the biology program at Maryville.

Family presents another challenge for women. According to an NSF study, unmarried women and those who don’t have children are more likely to become tenured full professors than married women or those with children. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is because women are more likely to serve as primary caretakers for their families, which takes time and attention away from work. Also, some colleges stop the tenure clock during maternity leave.

“As a female it can be hard, especially if you have children. We have to work, pick up the kids, do housework,” says Jinfeng Wei, PhD, associate professor of mathematics. “I don’t think male colleagues understand us completely.”

The NSF program offers a safe haven for participants, away from their jobs, colleagues, bosses, and employers, and with a network of women with whom they aren’t competing for promotion. It provides complete freedom to vent about professional and personal challenges, ask for emotional and practical support, and exchange ideas for the classroom and beyond.

“I have made friends who understand what I am going through,” Deng says. “It helps to know that I am not alone and that I have women who can support me when I need it.”

Each group is unique, but generally they focus on similar topics during monthly meetings, such as ideas for balancing work and family or tips for building a lab at a small university. Members also help each other with goal setting and provide feedback on tenure packets, sabbatical proposals and other professional projects. There’s also a healthy amount of teaching advice, from textbook reviews to curriculum suggestions.

“No topic is off the table,” says Kyra Krakos, PhD, assistant professor of biology. “These five other women are living my life, and they provide both emotional and professional support.”

While the program isn’t designed specifically to encourage young women to consider STEM field careers, participants believe that may be a positive side effect. The benefits of participating in the groups eventually trickle down to participants’ students, says Jennifer Yukna, PhD, associate professor of chemistry and assistant dean of sciences and mathematics.

“I’ve had very constructive and positive conversations with female students now about their plans, and about them wanting to have a family and a career,” Yukna says. “They are completely different conversations than what I would have had at their age. It’s one thing to say, ‘You can do it,’ but it’s another to say, ‘You can do it because all of these other people are doing it.’ It’s not just lip service.”