SIAM News Blog

ADVANCE Grants: Narrowing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

SIAM President Pam Cook has worked toward enhancing opportunities for women in academia

By Heather Walling Doty

Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware (UD), says that ignoring the power and strength of diversity is like going through life with one eye closed. Your depth perception is impaired and you don’t observe the full richness of what the world has to offer.

SIAM President Pam Cook agrees. Unidel Professor of Mathematical Sciences and associate dean of engineering at UD, Cook fosters the power and strength of diversity in each of her roles. When interacting with students, faculty, and administrators, she aims to create an environment that provides opportunities for those around her to strive to be their best. Cook has had a profound impact on women and underrepresented faculty and students. Nii Attoh-Okine, SIAM member and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UD, says, “Pam’s honesty and boldness in tackling the issues of diversity in the academy have made her both a mentor to numerous faculty and the ‘go-to person’ in critical issues concerning diversity issues in the faculty ranks.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) also believes in the power and strength of diversity. In the year 2000, the U.S. engineering workforce was over 90% male and three-quarters white. Understanding that such homogeneity impaired the nation’s potential for scientific and technological innovation, the NSF took action. In 2001, with a goal of diversifying the U.S. science and engineering workforce, it established the ADVANCE program. ADVANCE operates at the faculty level – its initiatives increase the representation and advancement of women faculty in science and engineering. This tactic makes sense; a diverse professoriate will meet the teaching and mentoring needs of a diverse student body, the workforce of the future.

The NSF’s ADVANCE program was inspired by actions of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1990s that led to a measurable increase in the number of women faculty in their School of Science. MIT’s interventions focused on active recruitment and retention of qualified women faculty. The school strengthened faculty mentoring and ensured equitable allotment of resources. The MIT study, as it has become known, demonstrated that with strong leadership and intentional focus, change is possible.

Today, NSF’s ADVANCE funds three types of grants. The largest, the Institutional Transformation (IT) grant, is geared toward doing just that – transforming an institution’s policies, procedures, practices, and climate to provide opportunity for all faculty to flourish. Social science research on faculty diversity is a required component of IT grants. The other two grants, the IT-Catalyst and the Partnerships or Learning and Adaptation Networks (PLAN), are smaller awards with more targeted scope and function. 

Cook is principal investigator on UD’s NSF ADVANCE IT grant, a five-year, $3.3 million grant awarded in 2014. UD’s IT grant aims to propel women faculty into academic leadership. It puts special emphasis on women faculty post-tenure and women faculty of color.

Pam Cook (third from right), principle investigator (PI) on University of Delaware’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation (IT) grant, along with the ADVANCE team (left to right): Jawanza Keita, Lynn McDowell, Shawna Vican, Joan Buttram, co-PIs Heather Doty and John Sawyer, UD ADVANCE director Emily Bonistall Postel, and co-PI Robin Andreasen. Photo credit: University of Delaware.

The grant operates at multiple levels, from the upper administration to the faculty. On the administrative side, the UD ADVANCE team works with the provost’s office, providing data-driven talking points – digestible facts and figures on aspects of diversity at UD and/or nationally. UD ADVANCE provides workshops and networking for chairs to help them understand their role in establishing departmental climates and best practices for fair evaluation of faculty, and offers clarification of family-friendly policies and procedures. For faculty, the ADVANCE team offers annual career-development workshops, for example, on the promotion and tenure process for assistant and associate professors and on the path to leadership for full professors. UD ADVANCE is developing mentoring programs specifically for women associate professors in STEM and for women faculty of color.

A decade before UD received its IT grant, the College of Engineering was already doing its part to increase women’s representation on the faculty. During this time, the then-dean of engineering hired Cook as associate dean to jumpstart the efforts. Together the dean and faculty made concerted efforts to positively recruit and retain faculty. Supported by a smaller NSF ADVANCE Partnerships for Adaptation, Implementation, and Dissemination (PAID) grant from 2008-2012, Cook led teams of UD faculty in developing workshops on best practices for faculty, conducted by faculty. The workshops were developed in collaboration with faculty from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who had established similar workshops through ADVANCE IT grants. The resulting two workshops at UD—one on best practices for faculty recruitment and one on best practices for mentoring faculty—were interactive and included modules on unconscious bias, or the cognitive shortcuts that we all fall back on when we interact with and evaluate others. Workshops were offered annually to faculty search committee members and to senior faculty designated as formal mentors to assistant professors. 

The years of focused, collaborative effort paid off at UD, just as they did at MIT in the 1990s. UD’s College of Engineering tenured/tenure-track (t/tt) faculty grew from 5% women in 2001 to 17% women in 2011. Of this accomplishment Cook says, “What we learned from the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan is that workshops by faculty for faculty lead to understanding, buy in, and continued conversations by the faculty after the workshops. And, as the MIT experience showed, diversification takes constant attention and pressure from the administration.” 

When Cook became a faculty member in the Mathematics Department at UCLA, she was the only female t/tt professor. Another female faculty member was later hired, so that when she received tenure at UCLA she was one of two women t/tt faculty. Upon moving to Delaware (a move precipitated by a spousal employment shift) she was again the only woman t/tt professor. And when she became chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, she was the first woman STEM department chair at UD. “A number of us have been solos in our discipline or workspace for much of our lives,” Cook says.

Today things have changed at many universities. Family-friendly policies, including parenting leave and stop-the-tenure-clock, are becoming more common. The number of departments with solo women is shrinking, but women faculty in math and science are still underrepresented, especially at the full-professor level. Even at SIAM, an open, inclusive, and international organization, women comprise less than 15% of regular members (among those who have identified their gender). Being such a minority takes its toll. At UD, faculty and administrators continue their work to diversify the faculty, now with the help of the ADVANCE IT award. The goal is to continue to raise awareness and institute policies, and ensure that all faculty and staff are aware of the policies so that the path to advancement is smoother for women, solos, and all faculty.

Pam Cook is current SIAM President and a SIAM Fellow. She is a fellow of the American Association of Science (AAAS) and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Cook’s prior positions at SIAM include secretary, vice president for publications, and editor-in-chief of the SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics. She received the national Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) University Change Agent award in 2012. Cook’s research interests include the mathematical modeling and simulation of fluids. Her early work focused on compressible fluids – transonic aerodynamics, while her current work focuses on viscoelastic (complex) fluids, particularly self-assembling surfactant solutions, mesoscale networked fluids, and gel-like liquids.

Heather Walling Doty is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware.

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