UMass Lowell Addresses Gender Bias in STEM Academia Through New Initiative

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Nationally, women earn 41 percent of all doctorate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines but make up only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields, according to White House data.

Margaret J. Sobkowicz-Kline

There are multiple reasons for this disparity, says Margaret J. Sobkowicz-Kline, PhD, an associate professor of plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UMass Lowell). “I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter academia as I worked on my PhD because I watched my mentor, who was male, struggle with balancing the workload and working independently on his research,” she says. “I considered other professions before I accepted a position on the faculty.”

In addition to balancing teaching and scholarly pursuits, subtle gender bias is another obstacle that can prevent women from entering — or can result in their leaving — academia, says Meg Bond, PhD, director of the Center for Women and Work and a psychology professor at UMass Lowell. Although biases are not usually overt, subtle actions — such as extending invitations to professional events only to junior male faculty — present barriers to female faculty members as they pursue advancement in academia, she adds.

Meg Bond

Thanks to a five-year, $3.5 million ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — awarded in fall 2016 — UMass Lowell is focusing its efforts on removing such obstacles for female faculty in STEM through an initiative called Making WAVES (Women Academics Valued and Engaged in STEM). Led by Bond and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at UMass Lowell Julie Chen, the initiative is designed to “raise awareness about microaggressions, promote equity and alternative paths to mentoring, reform institutional practices, and hold departments and colleges accountable for becoming more inclusive,” according to a university press release.

The grant builds on previous research that included the development of the Subtle Gender Biases Index (SGBI), a tool that measures gender bias to identify microaggressions and the barriers that deter women from pursuing or staying in STEM faculty roles, says Bond. “We learned that microaggressions occur in daily interpersonal interactions and that women are more aware of them than men,” she says. The university will administer the index every two years to evaluate any changes resulting from the Making WAVES initiative and to stimulate discussion.

UMass Lowell hosts an event to celebrate the launch of its Making WAVES initiative. From left to right are Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney; NASA scientist Pamela Conrad, who spoke at the event; Meg Bond, director of the Center for Women and Work; and Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation. (photo by Tory Germann for UMass Lowell)

Bond believes that identifying, addressing, and making all faculty members — both male and female — aware of the unintended biases that occur in daily interactions is key to overcoming them. Through the Making WAVES initiative, UMass Lowell has been working to raise awareness of issues of gender equity and bias in STEM by sharing SGBI data and hosting workshops, retreats, and seminars, among other events and activities.

The 50/50 Lecture Series brings noted scientists to campus to highlight their achievements as well as their personal journeys. Its format is very strategic: One half of a lecture is devoted to the speaker’s area of technical, educational, and research expertise, while the other segment is dedicated to examining his or her career path. Bond believes that hearing about other scientists’ challenges and how they have overcome obstacles, balanced their personal and professional lives, or been influenced by mentors inspires junior faculty members, especially women, to persevere.

One purpose of the event, according to a university press release, is to help junior female faculty develop relationships with individuals who can serve as mentors and who will aid them in their scholarly work, such as by extending invitations to speak at conferences or serving as a co-investigator on research. “The faculty member who [organizes the event] proposes follow-up with the speakers.— a visit to a senior scientist’s lab or attendance at a professional conference together — as a way to strengthen [female faculty members’] professional network outside the campus,” Bond says.

Sobkowicz-Kline leads the lecture series and has received excellent feedback from other UMass Lowell faculty members as well as students. “We invite speakers — women and men — who are prominent in their field and who may have taken a different path to academia,” she explains. “We want to show that scientists come from diverse backgrounds; it is not always a straight line from undergraduate to graduate and doctoral degrees to become a professor and scientist.” In fact, one speaker worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for four years after earning her PhD before entering academia, which Sobkowicz-Kline says shows that it is never too late to pursue goals.

Just as the 50/50 Lecture Series connects junior faculty to potential mentors, IDEA (Interdisciplinary Exchange and Advancement) Communities are designed to enhance mentoring and support for innovative scholarly work among women. The initiative brings together both junior and senior female science and engineering faculty from across the university to discuss their work and common struggles.

Sponsored by the Center for Women and Work, the IDEA Communities meet monthly to discuss a shared interest or common issue and to support each other. Topics often focus on a specific theme, such as climate change or digital health, and members have an opportunity to talk about their research, including the challenges they may be facing in pursuit of a grant or the development of a symposium, as well as their struggle to balance family and work responsibilities. Because subtle biases and microaggressions are not limited to one discipline, Bond believes it’s important to take this multidisciplinary approach to expand the number and types of perspectives represented by the group.

A Cultural Transformation
Even at excellent institutions such as UMass Lowell — which is committed to diversity and opportunity for every person — these subtle slights exist, Bond says. She cites several examples of unintended biases that occur at the university level: senior faculty informally visiting male junior faculty during the day, department chairs assuming women don’t want to travel if they have young children at home, and ideas originally presented by women not gaining traction until a male faculty member agrees or presents the idea himself, among others.

“None of these actions are mean-spirited or meant to intentionally slight women, and individually, each might not mean much, but the accumulation of these and other microaggressions can result in different access to opportunities for recognition and growth,” says Bond. “These subtle biases can undermine confidence and [create] barriers to resources and inclusion in professional networks for women.”

Yet, even when female faculty are provided access to more opportunities, they are not often those that lead to career advancement, says Sobkowicz-Kline. Examples of time-consuming activities that take women away from research include having to mentor increasing numbers of female students or handling committee assignments that are task-oriented, such as taking meeting notes.

“My mentors would suggest that I take on service-related roles, which I was happy to do, but having many departmental and university commitments doesn’t leave much time to think about my own research,” explains Sobkowicz-Kline, adding that because research is a critical factor in achieving tenure, these roles may create additional barriers.

Because pre-tenure professors often want to be agreeable team players, they may have difficulty saying no. However, Sobkowicz-Kline believes that men are not asked to assume these service-related roles as often as women, and when they are, they are able turn them down more easily — an ability that she believes is also a result of tenure. “As a tenured professor now, I am more empowered to choose my direction and use of my time,” she says.

Increased awareness of subtle biases that result in women’s assuming roles that may not be beneficial to their advancement will lead to more careful assignment of responsibilities by senior faculty leaders, Bond suggests. Junior faculty members will also begin to be more confident as they select the assignments that they will take on — choosing roles that support STEM departments’ goals but that also leave them time to pursue other activities that lead to tenure, she adds.

However, changing behavior related to subtle biases will not happen overnight; rather, it requires a university-wide, cultural transformation. Because many of these biases are the result of male-dominated fields conducting business as usual — with “this is the way we’ve always done it” as the pervasive way of thinking — Bond says it is important to address the issue in a way that doesn’t blame senior male faculty.

“We assume people don’t realize that some traditions do affect women or other underrepresented groups,” she explains. “In addition to increasing awareness of the issue, we also encourage others to speak up for women or other faculty members who might be affected by existing traditions.” Thus, the next component of the Making WAVES initiative will be a workshop designed to introduce department chairs and lead faculty members to bystander interventions to enable them to speak up when they observe gender bias in the workplace. Bond believes that educating people on techniques for avoiding direct confrontation — and by being diplomatic and speaking in terms of policy or structural issues that are harmful — will help change behaviors without making personal accusations.

The Making WAVES initiative, although still in its infancy, has already increased awareness of subtle biases and empowered faculty members to speak up for their colleagues — even when they are not in the room, says Sobkowicz-Kline. Recently, during a search committee conversation about a candidate, a committee member referred to a discussion that could be considered biased, even though subtle. It is small realizations such as this that Sobkowicz-Kline says can have an immense impact on women in academia — and in STEM fields.●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information, visit