How can colleges and universities more effectively encourage and support women faculty? How can women faculty most effectively work to achieve institutional changes that would promote professional success and satisfaction?


Amy Bug
Associate Professor of Physics, Swarthmore College

Janice Hick
Program Director, Analytical and Surface Chemistry, National Science Foundation


All participants were college and university faculty, representing seven STEM departments and every point on the academic career path (new assistant professor to college president). Several had senior administrative responsibility in the present or recent past (department chair, associate dean of faculty, vice chancellor for research, president, NSF division head), and thus brought multiple perspectives and concerns to the discussion.


In preparation for the workshop, participants read several significant articles on women scientists and academic careers. The workshop began by asking participants to imagine a future when gender equity is no longer a problem in college and university STEM departments. The ensuing discussion focused on six characteristics of such a future.
  1. Institutions and departments strive for and achieve parity in hiring, promotion and tenure. At minimum, parity means a percentage of women on STEM faculties at all ranks equal to that of women earning Ph.D.s, M.D.s, etc. There was not agreement on what parity would mean.

  2. The atmosphere of departments and institutions is changed: women would not feel like they and their actions are under the microscope, and their comments are heard rather than ignored.

  3. The tenure system has more flexibility:

    1. Varied models for a faculty member’s professional "life span" (e.g. eras of research, eras of teaching)

    2. Varied hiring agreements (option of fixed-term contracts rather than tenure or nothing).

    3. Tenure system that rewards achievements and contributions in more individualized way.

  4. There are possibilities for science and engineering faculty to re-enter the academic workforce, should a leave for personal reasons be necessary.

  5. Institutions and professional organizations demonstrate respect (in terms of monetary reward, professional recognition, etc.) for individual career path choices.

  6. Students and academic professionals alike have information available to them about different career paths within the academy. All would receive training in "survival skills" as graduate students/postdoctoral fellows (e.g. negotiation skills for salary and start-up facilities) and as new faculty (e.g. managing a research group, setting priorities amid multiple demands).

This opening session led participants to focus subsequent discussion on tenure and institutional/ professional climate, which they identified as core issues in achieving gender equity for women STEM faculty.


Participants began with a discussion of obstacles women face in achieving tenure, and possible alternatives to the current structure of academic hiring and measures of professional achievement that lead to tenure.

  1. Tenure-track is a relatively short period of time — and for many women faculty, it coincides with childbearing years. This presents a formidable barrier for many women, who may reject the academic career path on these grounds alone.

  2. What is tenure about? It is about academic freedom, but many argued that it is not absolutely essential. The "up-or-out" moment is extremely brutal.

  3. Participants explored alternatives that would enable women to pursue academic careers in a variety of ways.

    1. Give the faculty member the choice to come up for tenure or work on renewable contract.

    2. Establish a shorter tenure clock that sets different criteria for evaluation (minimal sufficiency at present, significant weighting of long-term promise).

    3. stablish the option of a 10-year clock. Faculty would begin positions, then choose either the current six-year clock to tenure or 10-year terminal appointment.

  4. Many faculty are asked to do too much. Overload (research proposals, papers, course loads, even startup companies) in a very competitive atmosphere can ultimately be detrimental to many good scientists — male and female.

  5. Two professional tracks already exist in a number of universities: a research track and a teaching track. This division is often gendered. At many such institutions, faculty can in theory move between these tracks at different phases of their career. In practice, however, once one has chosen one of these tracks, one is "slotted."

Participants also recommended concrete action plans for individual institutions to improve tenure success among women STEM faculty within the current system of academic hiring and promotion.

  1. Junior faculty should be provided with the means to gather information about tenure from inside and outside their institution:

    1. Internally, institutions should set up a mentoring program to pair senior and junior women. Department chairs and the dean should meet with them on a regular basis.

    2. Externally, professional organizations should offer tenure workshops by discipline and across the disciplines (through the auspices of an organization such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science).

  2. Mentoring must be institutionalized. All junior faculty should be mentored. Mentors should be chosen selectively by deans, provosts or presidents. Individual institutions should recognize mentoring (e.g. Penn State presents an award to the best mentor among senior faculty).

  3. An individual institution might sponsor an annual mentoring program for faculty to provide mentoring, train mentors and recognize notable mentors. Mentoring is needed at all levels — mentoring "down," mentoring "up" and mentoring "horizontally."

    EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education), a program developed by Bryn Mawr and Spelman Colleges to enhance the success of new women graduate students in math, is a notable example of discipline-specific mentoring (see Mentoring through graduate school and through the tenure period will be added to the program with the aid of recent grants from NSF and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

  4. Senior faculty must protect junior faculty from too much service.

  5. Institutions should explore the possibility of flexible trajectories toward tenure. Note: significant differences of opinion on this issue existed among participants.


Participants recommended the following concrete steps that can be taken now to improve institutional and professional climates for women.

  1. Gender equity can not remain an issue of the minority. Women must involve men in the planning stages of all projects, and should encourage men to be active participants in events and initiatives focused on gender and institutional climate. More broadly, women concerned about gender equity need to formulate ways to talk to all skeptics about gender equity issues — women and men — so as to have a demonstrable effect on climate.

  2. Institutionally, climate issues might be addressed by a faculty task force, one with equal numbers of men and women.

  3. Advocates of gender equity should identify those within the institution and the STEM departments/colleges whose voices carry weight and work to engage these individuals in dialogue. Those responsive to climate concerns should be drawn into planning and implementation of policy.

  4. Provosts and deans should institute rewards and awards for improving climate (e.g. hiring and retaining more women and underrepresented minority group members in STEM departments).

  5. Institutions must provide opportunities for women STEM faculty to develop leadership skills and serve in leadership positions. Women faculty should enlist the active support of existing women academic leaders to support efforts to improve climate.

  6. Mentor and peer networks among women STEM faculty should actively support individual women in protests/appeals related to gender equity.
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