Balancing the equation
Written by Kermit Pattison
Working to address the gender imbalance among CSE faculty
Connie Lu remembers the day she looked into the audience and imagined a place for herself.
It happened during her recruiting visit to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota. Lu—who boasted an impressive CV with degrees from MIT and Caltech and a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute—saw many attractions to Minnesota. Two senior faculty members already did impressive work in Lu’s field of bioinorganic chemistry. One-quarter of the chemistry department faculty was female—high by national standards in a male-dominated field. She wondered if the University would be a welcoming place for a young woman who hoped to start a family some day. During her undergraduate years, Lu’s few female professors seemed to sacrifice everything for their careers. Lu hoped for more work-life balance.
When it came time for Lu to give a talk on her research, she looked into the audience and saw a young female chemistry professor—and she was pregnant. And before she earned tenure. It was visual confirmation that the department would be family-friendly. Lu decided she would be comfortable in Minnesota.
This episode represents one small anecdote in a major challenge that faces the College of Science and Engineering and all of academia—the under-representation of female faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Today about 15 percent—or 65 women—of all faculty in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota are female.
There has been some progress—the number of women faculty has more than doubled since 2004—but the gender gap remains in many fields. According to Christopher J. Cramer, associate dean for Academic Affairs, “attention continues to be focused on improving this percentage, and indeed on increasing the numbers of faculty from all historically underrepresented groups.”
“We’re definitely not the worst, but we’re definitely not the furthest ahead,” said Brenda Ogle, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and chair of the Women’s Faculty Cabinet. “Minnesota, being
a progressive state with a history of forward-thinking social change, I would hope it would be farther ahead than it is. Yet, I am encouraged by recent improvement.”
In many STEM fields, representation of women declines as aspiring academics progress through undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral and faculty positions. “The pipeline is ‘leakiest’ from grad school to postdocs, and postdocs to first academic position,” Ogle said. “There are two primary elements there—culture and family.”
Parental leave has been a prime concern of the university’s Women’s Faculty Cabinet (WFC). Founded in 2006, the WFC includes 16 members from colleges across the university and serves as a forum for issues such as equitable pay, diversity, and parental leave. It recently drafted new procedures for parental leave that will be incorporated into university-wide tenure guidelines.
Until then, departments dealt with parental leave on an ad hoc basis—often not until new parents returned to work. Some faculty brought babies to work; others would switch teaching duties mid-semester. Clearly a more uniform policy was needed. The cabinet helped draft procedures that would apply across the University. “It’s an effort to improve the quality of life for the new parent,” Ogle said.
Ogle knows first-hand the difficulties of balancing career and family. She and her husband (the CEO of a medical device company) both manage demanding careers while raising three children. In her own research, Ogle investigates mechanisms of stem cell differentiation, especially in the cardiovascular system. Her team develops replacement tissues for the heart, mostly with therapies involving stem cells.
Recruiting poses another challenge. Applicant pools tend to have more men and thus skew the odds in favor of males. Only intentional efforts can begin to make the balance more equitable, Ogle said. The WFC also organizes events like networking lunches and annual retreats.
“I think there’s a recognition that, at least in STEM fields, this problem will continue to be propagated unless we become proactive,” Ogle said.
Four female CSE faculty members tell their stories about how they followed their passions in science and engineering.