STEMming the Tide of Inequity

By Umme Al-wazedi

Cover image of Building Gender Equity in the AcademyBuilding Gender Equity in the Academy: Institutional Strategies for Change by Sandra Laursen and Ann E. Austin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Sandra Laursen and Ann E. Austin’s Building Gender Equity in the Academy: Institutional Strategies for Change is a timely addition to the conversation about gender equity in academic institutions, particularly in STEM fields. The inclusion of both data and case studies of institutions that have applied equity-driven approaches separates their book from other explorations of the same topic. Most valuable are the authors’ concrete examples of how institutions can address the lack of visibility and voice of marginalized groups.

Part 1 introduces the concept of “occupational segregation,” common in STEM. Occupational gender segregation takes two forms: horizontal (for example, the underrepresentation of women among people pursuing PhDs in engineering compared with the life sciences) and vertical (for example, bias in evaluation, male-dominated workplaces, and work-life conflicts that limit career flexibility). Inadequate resource provision is a critical barrier to individual success. The authors argue that even if women reach their faculty positions by overcoming a “glass obstacle course,” they are behind in accruing informal knowledge about institutional policies and culture that may be crucial to success in their department or research institution. They may also suffer from “impostor syndrome.” In addition, women of color face challenges that arise from both racism and sexism. The authors pay tribute to Black feminist scholarship on intersectionality that has become increasingly important in STEM fields.

Laursen and Austin argue that while many institutions may be aware of occupational gender segregation, their approaches to achieving gender equity are insufficient because they attempt to fix the problems of individual women rather than the system. Further, institutions fail to accommodate two fundamental struggles: childcare options and dual-career programs to help the partners of women faculty members to find employment. While some institutions provide accommodations—for example, Utah State University and Virginia Tech expanded childcare programs—the authors argue that those accommodations are hardly transformational. They suggest that a more transformational approach would be “to consider the whole organization as a system, including policies, practices, rituals, values, and habits.” The authors cite the precedent of the National Science Foundation, precisely because it recognized the need to address equity on an organizational level for women STEM scholars and established the ADVANCE program to provide financial support for institutional transformation.

In part 2, the authors tackle implicit bias, framing the section with examples of innovative approaches to responding to it, including the ADVANCE program and its contribution to developing practical and evidence-based strategies for addressing bias. They highlight several interventions: inclusive recruitment and hiring, equitable processes of tenure and promotion, and strengthened accountability structures. For instance, at Case Western Reserve University, the cultural-competency training for search committees was customized for each department; an innovative, and probably rare, aspect of this approach was that the committee chairs also received information and data in one-on-one meetings to help guide the committees. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln went further by gathering data on graduation demographics and job placement for PhDs in their fields. Georgia Tech developed an impressive set of resources and activities, including case studies and instructional games, for its Awareness of Decisions in Evaluating Promotion and Tenure (ADEPT) project, and the University of Michigan created an interactive theater presentation called The Faculty Meeting, which faculty members can perform together, as colleagues at my institution did in 2019. The authors also add a short section about promotion to full professor and suggest that workshops or informational brown-bag sessions for associate professors are helpful in advancing gender equity. Having noted all these efforts, the authors argue that institutions will have to keep changing their approaches to equity, or their interventions will become stagnant.

One chapter in part 2, “Reboot Workplaces,” includes both traditional examples of how to change the workplace and some interesting new ones. For example, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, offered a “Presidential Leadership Fellowship for a woman scholar to be released from teaching responsibilities to intern as a senior administrator.” However, very few women applied for this fellowship, which makes me wonder whether women faculty thought that it would be too much work in addition to what they already have to do in terms of research and service. North Dakota State University developed a leadership program to encourage senior male faculty members to work as allies with women faculty and to advocate for gender equity. The chapter also highlights department-initiated approaches. However, the most critical part of the discussion on workplace change is enhancing visibility for women. One approach the authors suggest is to celebrate women’s achievements by highlighting their contributions to science and nominating women for campus, regional, and national awards.

The chapter “Support the Whole Person” gives examples of institutions and their policies on dual hires. The authors write that one-size-fits-all policies may not always work, recommending instead “case-by-case informal assistance.” Part 2 of the book ends with the chapter “Foster Individual Success,” which lists examples of the many institutions with internal grants to support women faculty. These grant programs are very helpful for early-career faculty. The authors also note that one-on-one mentoring has proven successful. Lehigh University, for example, targeted “STEM women who had been recently tenured and promoted to associate professor and supported them to pursue promotion to full professor by developing a career success plan and interacting with an external senior mentor.” I include this particular example because while there may be great support for newly hired faculty, associate professors are most often excluded from professional-development opportunities, which can limit advancement.

A chapter in the third and final section of the book, “Put It All Together,” showcases three case studies of institutions that have changed their portfolios of approaches to advancing equity—Case Western Reserve University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Laursen and Austin conclude that the institutions’ objectives depended on their history, mission, location, and culture. These four elements also shape “what is important for a change project to address, and which approaches are more likely to succeed,” as each institution has decided what theory or theories to apply. In their concluding chapter, “Design a Change Portfolio to Advance Equity,” the authors argue that institutional transformation takes time and that its challenges require systematic approaches. They emphasize the need to establish buy-in, identify allies, and communicate effectively before introducing new programs. Any systematic change, they remind us, involves action, learning, commitment, and community.

Although I am not in a STEM field, I have heard my colleagues in the humanities repeatedly ask the same questions as Laursen and Austin. Indeed, the authors write that the lessons they examine are “very portable to other disciplines.” They are clear that the scope of policies for redressing gender inequity is enormous. Although not all their suggested measures may seem new to some of us, many others will find them helpful, and leaders who seek to implement equity-driven approaches would benefit from reading the book. Ultimately, the highlight of Building Gender Equity in the Academy is the plethora of data the authors share with readers.

Umme Al-wazedi is an associate professor of English and chair of the language and literature division at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her email address is [email protected]