Building a Better Academic Atmosphere for Women STEM Faculty

Four female faculty members in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at The University of Scranton are part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Four women faculty in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at The University of Scranton are part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant involves women from all STEM disciplines at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI) in an experimental project to develop networking and mentoring opportunities. The grant’s principal investigator, Joanne Smeija, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at Gonzaga University, put out a call for other STEM women to join her to develop the proposal. As it happens, all four co-investigators are also from Jesuit institutions, including Janice Voltzow, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Biology at Scranton. The group has received a grant for $600,000 over five years from the NSF to develop peer networking to promote professional development for STEM women faculty. 

Women are underrepresented in almost all fields of STEM. The percentage of women in faculty positions in STEM is discouragingly low and keeping STEM women faculty at PUIs is difficult. At PUIs like Scranton, the representation of women in STEM faculty is often even lower. Within STEM departments at Scranton women currently occupy 0% to 29% of the faculty (see table). STEM female faculty at PUIs typically carry large teaching and advising loads and are often the only females in their departments. Across disciplines, female faculty report problems with authority, isolation and balancing the responsibilities of work and family that appear to limit career success. Most research about factors that enhance or inhibit career success for STEM women faculty has been gathered from studies at larger, research-intensive universities where faculty operate within distinctly different circumstances compared to faculty at PUIs. Whether private or public, PUIs are often characterized by faculty governance, high expectations of service, an emphasis on teaching with small classes and low student-faculty ratios, and small departments with few if any female colleagues in their STEM departments. Therefore, PUIs provide specific career opportunities and challenges for women faculty members. 

Formal and informal networking help women faculty stay in their field and become more successful despite the demands of their careers. This type of mentoring and networking may offer access to information and resources that may encourage career advancement. These associations may facilitate opportunities to improve the status, effectiveness and visibility of a faculty member through relationships with new colleagues, shared knowledge about institutional cultures, and raised awareness of innovative projects and new challenges. The entire project is an experiment on the impact of networking on the careers of the participants. 

The project includes 70 tenured or tenure-track women from 28 PUIs across the country. At the heart of the networking project is the system of alliances. Each alliance consists of four to six women who are in the same or similar STEM discipline at a similar stage of their career, either early, mid or senior. The women within an alliance meet with each other via videoconference at least once a month and share information using a confidential social network site. Alliance members also meet in person once a year over the course of four years.

In addition, networking groups have been set up based on discipline and career level. The networks communicate through a closed social media page similar to a Facebook page. Opportunities for direct email and teleconferencing also allow for discussions of a wide range of topics: What factors have been helpful across the faculty’s career? How did they get to where they are? What opportunities or challenges have they met as they advanced in their careers? Who are their role models? Why choose the discipline chosen? 
Horizontal networks allow women across disciplines to discuss their successes and challenges as faculty members. Each horizontal network consists of women at similar career levels.

A vertical network is composed of women in similar disciplines. There are five vertical networks: biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics/engineering and engineering/computer science. These networks permit the women to focus on aspects of their career specific to their discipline. Networking also provides more junior faculty (usually assistant professors) the opportunity to seek advice about advancement from more senior women (usually associate or full professors). Achieving rank presents various expectations of performance and responsibility, so these networks allow women to learn directly from each others’ experiences.

The fourth network brings members together at the all-participant meetings of the project. The members just had their first face-to-face meeting last fall in Kansas City, Mo., in conjunction with the AAC&U/PKAL meeting on STEM learning. 

Four faculty from the University are participating in this project. Dr. Voltzow and Maria Squire, Ph.D., are members of the senior and early career biology alliances, respectively. Stacey Muir, Ph.D., and Jennifer Vazquez, Ph.D., are members of the mid-and early-career math alliances, respectively. Dr. Muir is also the leader for the horizontal network of mid-career participants.

An independent team of evaluators is surveying the participants over the course of the project to measure the effect of the networking activities on their productivity, satisfaction and advancement. These sociologists are monitoring the use of social network, email and teleconferences to quantify what tools best serve the different populations of the study. Ultimately, the results of the study will be used to help guide future opportunities for networking for STEM women faculty and identify ways of promoting and retaining them in academic professions.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in The University of Scranton’s spring 2013 issue of Ignite magazine. Visit for more information and click here to read it in Ignite.